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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Column: Addicts, not criminals

    Last week, Michael Botticelli was appointed to the position of Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. This agency is important because, according to The New York Times, it “devises and controls the budget for national drug policies, assists the State Department and Drug Enforcement Administration in dealing with governments of countries from which drugs are exported … and works with domestic health and law enforcement officials on strategies to stem the supply and abuse of drugs.”

    Botticelli’s new role is significant due to his experience. He is the first recovered addict to hold the position, following in the footsteps of previous directors who had only police or military backgrounds. And, because of his past, he is more understanding of the horrors that accompany mental illnesses such as addiction, as well as the perseverance required to overcome them.

    “Locking people up for minor drug offenses, and especially people with substance-use disorders, is not the answer,” Botticelli said, as reported by The New York Times. “It’s cruel. It’s costly. And it doesn’t make the public any safer.”

    Botticelli’s stance is spot-on. In the U.S. between 2001 and 2013, drug convictions represented the sole offenses of over half of the people serving more than one year in federal prison. Nearly 100,000 prisoners are currently serving time for drug-related crimes. Of those on parole or probation, over 30 percent were still using illicit drugs, which is a higher rate than adults who aren’t on parole. And in 2013, the Obama administration requested $25.6 billion of federal spending for the drug war, most of which went to law enforcement.

    Imprisoning drug users — especially those charged with minor possession — is costly, ineffective and unhelpful. Using a punitive system of justice with addicts is not only pointless, but often exacerbates the situation by attaching a felony label to those who are convicted. Once released, employers will not hire them, and they often must return to selling drugs in order to survive.

    The solution is to develop a method that focuses on recovery rather than criminalization. It isn’t only the method that must be altered; the cultural perception of addicts must change as well.

    “Sadly, addiction for the most part is seen as a choice in this country versus a disease process,” said Liana Condello, director of assessment and referral for Sonora Behavioral Health Hospital. “In my experience, the only choice addicts make is to try [a drug] for the first time, and then the downward spiral begins.”

    Botticelli’s appointment represents an essential step toward shifting the focus away from America’s prison-first attitude and onto solutions that will actually help solve the problem. Elsewhere in the world, more reasonable tactics are already proving to be effective.

    “Look at Portugal, for instance,” Condello said. “They decriminalized all drugs of abuse several years back. They offer treatment versus jail time for abusers and addicts. Now, studies are finding a large decrease in drug use among minors. The government is actually helping control the problem. So, my opinion is that the largest problem we have in America when addressing addiction is the hypocrisy with how our government views it.”

    Addiction is a mental disability and should not be met with ostracization from society. Alternative pathways exist that are more effective and cost-efficient. In 2014, the average cost of treating addiction was $11,000, while the cost of imprisoning someone for one year ballooned to over $30,000.

    The issue does not lie with the cost of treatment programs or questions regarding their success rates, it is with the stigmas many Americans hold against those who become addicted to drugs. If the money spent on imprisonment and intense drug regulation was instead reallocated to treatment, addicts’ lives would be saved, and communities would become safer. Addiction does not need to carry a prison sentence, and Botticelli’s appointment will hopefully help to spark a change in an antiquated way of thinking.


    Cooper Temple is a sophomore studying economics and Middle Eastern & North African studies. Follow him on Twitter.

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