President Richard M. Nixon’s designation of our nation’s “war on drugs” in the 1970s was a defining moment in the treatment of substance abuse and drug addiction, one that carried with it the unforeseen realities of stigmatization and marginalization. Because of this delineation, drug users and addicts are scrutinized under a lens of non-acceptance, under a belief that drug addiction is a choice requiring punishment as a means of discouragement, which has set off a series of events further perpetuating the life-altering horrors of dependence and addiction. Today, “of the 2.3 million inmates in the U.S., more than half have a history of substance abuse and addiction,” and while not all of those inmates are incarcerated on drug-related charges, “in many cases, their crimes, such as burglary, have been committed in the service of feeding their addictions.” The sheer number of crimes influenced by drugs points to an important truth in the evolution of America’s war on drugs: the approach that our justice system has adopted – that of incarceration and not treatment – is a largely failed approach and requires overhaul in hopes of lessening both recidivism rates and the reliance on illicit substances that, to date, largely remains untreated.

Treatment – not Incarceration – toward Recovery from Addiction

It is now widely accepted that addiction is a disease, and as a disease, drug addiction should be treated and not relegated to the baser edges of society as a criminal act requiring stiff “correction.” In approaching this proposed change, two criteria should be at the forefront of the argument for drug addiction treatment: recidivism and economics. Recidivism rates, it has been shown, drop sharply when a course of treatment is outlined and implemented in lieu of a prison sentence. One National Treatment Improvement Evaluation Study (NTIES) report found that “offenders who went through treatment showed a nearly two-thirds decline in overall arrests and an over 50% drop in drug possession arrests. More importantly, criminal behavior – self-reported to NTIES by these former offenders which did not necessarily result in arrest – also declined.” Treatment also makes more economic sense than imprisonment, particularly when considering the true costs behind incarceration. In 2007 alone, states spent a total of $44 billion on their respective prison systems. While this figure is indicative of all – drug-related or otherwise – offenders, bearing in mind that arrests for drug abuse violations from 1970-2007 have exhibited an upward trend, it is important nonetheless. In making the case for treatment against incarceration, consider the following: a National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) study released in 2009 found that, by reducing recidivism rates, “for every dollar spent, the programs save $2 to $6 by reducing the costs of re-incarceration… Looked at another way, the programs can save the justice system about $47,000 per inmate.”

Finding Addiction Treatment in South Florida

We think the numbers paint a clear picture: the disease of addiction should be approached with treatment – not punishment – in mind. Our current system, however, remains firm in its largely antiquated methodologies, placing responsibility in the hands of the individual and his or her family to curb drug abuse and addiction prior to the possibility of its being handled by the criminal justice system. If you or a loved one is suffering from drug addiction, please contact a rehab center immediately and take the first step in mending a life broken by chemical dependence. Preventing jail time is possible through an Alternative Sentencing Assistance Program.