The Drug Problem

Until about six years ago what I knew about America’s drug problem was what was reported in the news. I assumed drug abuse and addiction were isolated and only impacted a relatively small number of people. Then the real world came crashing in and we had to help our 19 year-old son enter a substance abuse program because of his struggles with opiates and other drugs. As a consequence I now know a great deal about the drug crisis facing our country, much more than I ever wanted to know, and I am certain that our current approach to solving that crisis does not work.

One response offered when this topic is broached is that an individual chooses to start taking drugs, and that is certainly true. However, a reliable national survey indicates that some children are abusing drugs by the age of 12, meaning they likely started even earlier. Our own son started smoking marijuana at 12, and we had absolutely no clue. When he was in his late teens we realized he was smoking weed, but we thought the use was rare and we had no idea he had turned to harder drugs until a few months prior to helping him find treatment (which, by the way, he asked for). And yes, I’m in tears as I write this because the pain parents go through in this situation is indescribable. I also hurt for the eight friends my son has lost to overdose. The ones I knew were great kids, just like our son.  I also weep for others who still struggle every second of every minute of every day; you can take me at my word when I say that a large majority hate their lives and want desperately to quit.

Anyway, are we really going to hold children responsible for the mistakes made at age 12 or earlier even though we know that continued use over time makes quitting ANY drug difficult? I don’t want to be held responsible for all the stupid stuff I did in my late teens (and maybe early twenties), much less for the things I did at 12.  And today I’m a coffee addict and have been for 40 years, and if I try to quit I know the consequences (Because I have tried. Dumb idea!). Apply that challenge 1,000 times over to drugs that are 1) very, very, very enticing and 2) much more addictive, and I’m amazed anyone ever wins the battle.

Here are some other relevant facts:

  • Deaths from drug overdose reached an all time high in 2015 (the latest year for which statistics are available), with about 50,000 deaths reported. The number of drug-related deaths more than doubled between 2002 and 2015.  The number of deaths from opioid overdose  rose 2.8 times during that period, with more than 30,000 deaths. And the number of heroin-related deaths reached about 13,000 in 2015, a number 6.2 times higher than in 2002.
  • As of 2014 it was estimated that our economy suffers about $700 billion each year because of tobacco ($295 billion), alcohol ($224 billion), and illegal drugs ($193 billion). These result from required medical care, lost productivity, and crime.
  • In 2013, the last year a nationwide survey of almost 25 million Americans was conducted, 9.4% of the population over 12 admitted to using illegal drugs during the last month. Almost 20 million had smoked marijuana in the last month, up more than 5 million from the 2007 survey (and remember that this drug is still illegal in most states).
  • About 54% of current drug users started use as teenagers. Most began with marijuana.
  • According to the 2013 survey 22.7 million Americans needed drug treatment but only 2.5 million received that treatment.

So our current approach just isn’t working. It perfectly describes the definition of insanity generally attributed to Einstein (though he likely borrowed it): “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. It is time to try something else.

A 2014 Pew poll found that 2/3 of Americans believed those arrested with illegal drugs should be offered treatment options rather than incarcerated, yet today 46% of federal prisoners (more than 82,000) are incarcerated for drug-related crimes. For comparison, the next highest number of federal prisoners was convicted on “weapons, explosives, or arson” charges, and they comprise only 16.8% of the federal prison population. On the state level, about 16% of prisoners are serving time for drug offenses (as of 2015). So punishment remains a major option when dealing with drug offenders.

Please understand that I am very “law and order” minded and I argue for severe punishment for violent offenders or others of whom we are afraid, but I’ll address that another time. If a drug offender is also charged with a related crime such as robbery, assault, or vehicular homicide, I want that offender off the streets. However, if the offender is only committing a crime of drug possession or minor dealing, I’d address it another way. On a personal note, by the way, I hope there is a special unpleasant cranny in the afterlife for heroin, meth, and illegal opioid sellers, and I’d punish them severely in this life as well because they are murderers.

I know this sounds counterintuitive, but according to my sources (I’ve gotten to know a lot of teenagers during the last few years), it is easier for those under age 21 to purchase illegal drugs than alcohol because drug dealers don’t care how old the buyer is whereas the convenience store doesn’t want to lose its selling license and bars don’t want to lose their pouring license. Of course we could crack down even more on selling alcohol to those who are under 21 (I would probably change that to 18 if I had my way, but that is for another discussion) by making liquor licenses expensive and making it almost impossible to regain a license lost for selling to underage customers.

I would also legalize marijuana (and I am NOT promoting its use), regulate the heck out of it to ensure growers were not mixing in addictive chemicals (as was done by tobacco companies), charge large sums  for selling licenses, and impose strict penalties for selling to minors. There is little doubt that continued use of the drug is harmful, that it is especially harmful to adolescents whose brains are still developing, and it is dangerous during pregnancy. So is consuming alcohol (yet I still enjoy the IPA). Adults should be able to make the choice whether to use it but children should not. I repeat what I stated earlier; kids have no trouble at all buying marijuana now even though it is illegal.

I would not legalize other drugs but I would decriminalize them, and I would always favor treatment options first. Many states have been experimenting with “drug court” options for non-violent possession and minor distribution cases in recent years, and they have been very successful. Recidivism rates are drastically reduced and crimes that often accompany drugs have been reduced as much as 45% over other sentencing options. Drug courts require those convicted to seek treatment, and the judge monitors success (the one convicted is subject to random urinalysis and other testing). I know kids who have turned their lives around because of drug court. It works much better than sending someone to prison at a cost of $30,000 per year where he or she learns about a lot of other cool crimes to commit upon release.

The bottom line is this: Treatment does not always work, but it does work for a good number of addicts.  The war on drugs is a failure by every significant measure, and both liberal and conservative media outlets have reached that conclusion.  Even the Law Enforcement Action Partners (LEAP), an organization created by law enforcement officers, argues for abandoning the unwinnable war.  Let’s try something new and use a portion of the war on drug money for treatment.

Oh, and our son who entered treatment at 19?  He has been clean and sober since May 13, 2011 and is now a drug counselor working with young people to help them overcome dependency. Treatment saved his life and is saving countless others. And the truth is I would not change a thing because the experience has strengthened me as a person and our relationship as a family. I’m just happy and fortunate that our son survived.

America’s New Drug Policy Landscape

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Drug Policy