How Decriminalization Reform Is Changing the Treatment of Substance Use

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Since the early 1970s during the Nixon administration, Americans have been living under a set of political policies known as “The War on Drugs.” Richard Nixon and his administration wanted to address the widespread substance use and testing of the 1960s and do something drastic that would satisfy their supporters. 

Although temporary satisfaction was gained, these policies ended up doing far more harm than good. There are many ways in which the laws that were passed during this time could be considered damaging to our nation and others. One way is how our justice system classifies different substances and how it treats those found to have them. 

The War on Drugs gave out far harsher, substance-related charges and more aggressive law enforcement. This lead many people to be enprisoned rather than gaining access to treatment. Today, states like Oregon are experimenting with new legal models to try and address these issues. 

The Problem With Incarceration 

In the 1970s (and especially the 1980s) there was an increase in sentences for those in possession of illegal substances. This was aided by funding in the billions for policing agencies to allow for more aggressive tactics. Tactics included increasing sentences for offenders, more police raids, information gathering, and far more arrests. 

One particularly harmful policy was the increase of funding for police departments that had a higher number of drug arrests, encouraging over-policing in impoverished areas. With this massive effort both in the U.S and other U.N countries, one may ask if these policies were able to lower substance use disorders and help those who need it. The answer is, unfortunately, no. 

The idea behind increasing sentences for those found with substances is to deter their purchase and use. However, some government research shows that an estimated 65% of the United States prison population has an active substance use disorder (SUD). Another 20% did not meet the criteria for a SUD, yet they were on drugs or alcohol at the time of their crime. 

These statistics were found after decades of harsher sentences, information campaigns, and aggressive policing. The threat of steep jail sentences did not stop people from using drugs. Not only did it not stop them from using, but it also posed many dangers to people with a SUD. More information regarding these statistics can be found here

Many people do not get any treatment for SUD while in prison and if they do it is usually very minimal. This means that relapse is especially dangerous when they get out and return home since their tolerance has gone down. On top of this, studies have shown that many inmates return to environments likely to trigger a relapse. 

Community support programs, religious support, and rehabilitation have been shown to prevent relapse after release. However, this poses an important question: Why not do this in the first place instead of sending someone to prison? Prison certainly deters some people from using dangerous drugs, but it also harms many others who need help. 

Mental Health and Stigma 

In the United States and across the world, those who are sent to prison carry an unfortunate stigma in society. Many people assume the worst about those who have been convicted, even if they have tried to turn their lives around. This stigma can severely harm someone’s self-image and make it much harder to find employment or relationships. 

Inmates who were caught in possession of drugs are often placed in the same facilities as those who have committed murder and other heinous crimes. An estimated 450,000 people are incarcerated in the U.S at any given time for non-violent drug offenses.

Since substance use disorder and mental health often go hand in hand, sending someone to prison for a non-violent drug offense instead of providing the proper help may be counterproductive. Many prisons do not have the resources to offer decent rehabilitation, let alone professionals that can treat the dual diagnosis of a mental health disorder and SUD. 

This is why it is so important to seek help before your treatment is in the hands of the prison system. Treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy are usually not offered in prison and have been known to help many people with SUD.

A New Model

Thankfully, with new legislation, our nation is beginning to experiment with new legal models, potentially leading to more people getting the help they need. In February 2021, Oregon decriminalized small amounts of drugs, leading to a fine instead of jail time. 

State legislatures also decided to use the $45 million of excess tax revenue from the legal marijuana industry to fund public support programs. If someone is caught with substances they will be offered a variety of services including recovery services, harm reduction, peer support, and even housing and job assistance. For more information, you can read an article on the new legislation.  

California, New York, and other states are going the route of decriminalization as well, particularly with psychedelics and marijuana. Although some people worry if these policies will do more harm than good, trying out a new model to fix this issue may be valuable and get people the treatment they need. Focusing on health and treatment— instead of locking people away in prison—has a chance to set them on a path to recovery instead of an unfortunate cycle in our prison system. 

While some people find a path to recovery through prison, many others end up getting placed in a worse position than before. As our society matures and we understand more about substance use disorders and how to treat them, strategies will change. Only time will tell if decriminalization will benefit our nation. One thing is true though, it is better to seek treatment no matter what. Recognizing that you or a loved one needs help is not easy. That being said, prison can be far more difficult on those convicted and their families. If you or someone you love has a substance use disorder, Everlast Recovery Centers is here to help. At our facilities in sunny southern California, we offer a comfortable treatment environment and staff that care about your needs. We offer treatment both for SUD and for mental health, which goes hand in hand. For more information on our services, call (866) 338-6925

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