I work with people struggling with addiction. I am a person who struggled with addiction. Helping others is my passion, and my debt to those who helped me.
So why do I write about politics? Because politics and addiction are related. Decisions made in the political arena directly affect not only those who now struggle, but whether or not people who have not become addicted will do so in the future.
The Criminal Justice System
The criminal justice system is one of the biggest influences. It’s a system that not only fails to promote recovery, but often makes recovery more difficult. First, we should know that the rate of recovery among prisoners released after serving time for drug offenses is approximately zero. A 1974 study noted, “[w]ith few and isolated exceptions, the rehabilitative efforts that have been reported so far have no appreciable effect on recidivism.” Based on that observation, decades of inattention to rehabilitation followed.
Not only that, but even for those who desire to get clean it’s often difficult to recover with the realities placed on them by the system. For example, it’s hard to get a decent paying job or even rent an apartment with a felony on your record. Here in Harrisonburg, where James Madison University’s huge enrollment strains the availability of rentals, often the only option for those coming out of prison is a room in one of the “drug den” hotels downtown. When I took one man down to look at a place, in the 20 minutes we spent there he saw five people he knew from his substance abuse years. That’s hardly an environment conducive to recovery!
In rural Utah, released prisoners are not allowed to get their drivers licenses back until they’ve paid their fines. Yet they may live 20-30 miles from where work is available. If they don’t work, they can’t pay their fines and they go back to jail. If they drive to work without a license and get caught, they go back to jail. It’s a Catch 22. Many of them do go back to jail because they can’t find a solution to the conundrum.
The Fallacy of Prohibition
Our drug policies not only fail to prevent and treat addiction, they actually promote addiction. A 1992 study showed that despite increasing negative consequences, illicit drug use actually rose in some communities, while the use of legal substances like alcohol dropped.
How is it possible that prohibition promotes addiction? The Cato Institute cites Richard Cowan’s “Iron Law of Prohibition”:
[T]he more intense the law enforcement, the more potent the prohibited substance becomes. When drugs or alcoholic beverages are prohibited, they will become more potent, will have greater variability in potency, will be adulterated with unknown or dangerous substances, and will not be produced and consumed under normal market constraints.
The 1972 book, Licit and Illicit Drugs by Edward M. Brecher found a similar link. The stronger the prohibition, the more potent the form of the drug and the more rapid the ingestion method (i.e. smoking or injecting as opposed to swallowing or snorting).
This is not only economics. It’s common sense. As Creedence Clearwater Revival noted in their 1969 song, “Bootleg,”
Take you a glass of water
Make it against the law.
See how good the water tastes
When you can’t have any at all.
The basic laws of economics say that something becomes more valuable as it becomes scarce. Prohibition makes the prohibited substance not only more expensive, but also more desired. We can try to blame that on immorality, but the truth is, it’s basic capitalism. Prohibition is an anti-capitalist approach.
We lament the rise of addiction and overdoses in this country, but our legal system isn’t designed to reduce the problem. Instead, it makes it worse for those who are already in addiction. Whether it prevents people from becoming addicts should also be obvious– if our legal system worked as a preventive measure, the problem wouldn’t be increasing.
There are some basic changes we could make to move us in the direction of positive change. Decriminalization is one. And I say this as a recovering addict who knows first-hand the danger and damage of the substances involved. But the fact is, criminalization is a failure. It has made the drug problem worse. And, as we say in recovery, “If you kleep doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep getting what you’re getting.” If we want something different, we have to do something different. And that is a political problem, not a moral one.