Addiction to Drugs: Is It a Crime?
In modern society, addiction and crime are often seen as being identical. Sadly, news articles, political speeches and other sources are filled with language that equates addiction to drugs with criminal behavior. The problem is that medical science has long held that being addicted isn’t a criminal act, but people keep getting punished for it.
Could there be a better way forward? It’s important to understand the facts about America’s stance on addiction and crime.
How We Penalize Addiction
Don’t think countries like the U.S. criminalize addiction? Drug possession laws clearly state otherwise. People who get caught with small personal amounts of drugs can go to jail, be fined thousands of dollars or have their lives ruined.
Lawmakers might argue that these laws are designed to deter people from harming society with their drug use. The result, however, is that addicts with serious diseases get punished regardless whether they intended or tried to sell drugs, commit other criminal acts or expose vulnerable minors to drug use. Instead of looking for ways to treat addiction, people end up in jail. Federal law criminalizes drug usage to the extent that it even has a separate legal category known as “simple possession.” As we’ll soon see, this framework ends up hurting addiction sufferers and their family members the most.
Getting and staying sober is very challenging, but with the right support network and tools, it's completely attainable.
Should We Be Doing Things This Way?
From a legal standpoint, there’s no doubt that the law is intentionally designed to criminalize drug users, including addicts. Being addicted itself may not be a crime, but using drugs is illegal, so addicts get punished by default.
The question is whether this kind of justice actually benefits society. Let’s look at two important real-world examples:
Punishment Can Stand in the Way of Addicted Users Trying to Get Better
In one Massachusetts case, a woman with a 10-year history of struggling with opioid addiction was placed on probation for theft. Although she complied with most of her probation conditions, she failed a urine test. As a result, she was sent to prison, where she was unable to continue her treatment for ten days.
Should she have been punished for the theft? Few people would argue against this idea. The problem is that by punishing her for relapsing, the system totally ignored the fact that she clearly needed opioid addiction treatment to improve to the point where she wouldn’t commit such errors again. There’s also no telling how the treatment interruption might have negatively impacted her progress or how it will affect her battle with addiction down the line. Fortunately, getting into a new residential rehabilitation program ended up being her saving grace.
Current Systems Punish the Innocent
One of the biggest social challenges of addiction to drugs is that it has generational consequences. For example, the number of babies born with opioid dependencies multiplied fivefold from 2003 to 2012. Fortunately, neonatal care units and doctors are reassessing the way they treat these infants so that they can get through withdrawal. Some scientists also say that most babies born to addicted parents don’t end up having their own dependency problems.
According to the same researchers, however, these infants commonly face other challenges. Similar to the so-called “crack baby epidemic” of the 1990s, society tends to view parents who have addictions as being unfit or at-fault for their children’s problems. This might result in harsher criminal penalties against the parents, which then provides their children with worse home lives and less stability.
Even if the children of addicts don’t end up having drug problems themselves, this is an example of how current punishments can negatively impact entire families. From a harm-reduction policy standpoint, it seems clear that helping the parents deal with their addictions responsibly via rehabilitation and other programs might be a better use of resources.
What Does It All Mean?
No law specifically criminalizes being addicted to a substance. The problem is that the rules criminalize actions like drug possession, which disproportionately targets addicts. Judges have also shown tendencies to apply more severe sentencing or mandatory minimum penalties in crimes that involve drug offenses.
For people struggling with addiction, the takeaway is clear: Although even the government admits that treatment can improve outcomes for those in the criminal justice system, modern policies aren’t always good at providing such assistance. In other words, those who don’t want to be treated as criminals for their addiction problems may find that their best chances lie in seeking compassionate rehabilitation aid on their own before the authorities step in.
Photo Credit: Alessio Lin
- National Institute on Drug Abuse: https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/criminal-justice
- Above the Law: https://abovethelaw.com/2018/07/when-drug-addiction-is-a-crime-not-a-sickness/
- Center for American Progress: https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/criminal-justice/reports/2018/06/27/452819/ending-war-drugs-numbers/
- United States Sentencing Commission: https://www.ussc.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/research-and-publications/research-publications/2016/201609_Simple-Possession.pdf
- Carmichael Ellis & Brock: https://www.carmichaellegal.com/federal-drug-possession-charges#:~:text=Federal%20Drug%20Possession%20Penalties,fines%20of%20%242%2C500%20or%20more.
- NPR: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/10/26/559541332/court-to-rule-on-whether-relapse-by-an-addicted-opioid-user-should-be-a-crime?utm_campaign=storyshare&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social
- The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/13/health/opioid-addiction-babies.html
- NPR: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/06/30/534911289/for-newborns-exposed-to-opioids-health-issues-may-be-the-least-of-their-problems
- Common Sense for Drug Policy: https://www.csdp.org/edcs/page26.htm
- Alessio Lin: https://unsplash.com/@lin_alessio?utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=photographer-credit&utm_content=creditBadge