Everyone benefits by ending our criminal approach to drug use
Opioid Overdoes. Drug Addictions. Lives Torn Apart. Those are the headlines today. These are terrible problems in our society and I think they have been caused in part because we don’t treat drug use and drug addiction as public health crises. Whenever we hear the word drug, our first response is, “let’s get law enforcement on this.” Instead, I think we should be calling public health officials.
For decades we’ve taken this public health issue and attached a criminal justice label to it. And it just hasn’t worked. In fact, the problems have gotten worse, not better. Millions of lives have been destroyed by our criminal approach, on top of the lives destroyed by drug use itself. Yet our reaction to the destruction has largely been to enforce our criminal approach more zealously. We’ve ramped up policing and given harsher sentences, but the destruction only gets worse. This is predictable. Doubling the trauma will never produce flourishing. It leaves people crushed and families torn apart.
The criminal justice system certainly has its place. It is the right tool for acts of aggression such as theft, rape, and murder. There are victims in aggressive crimes, and they deserve justice. Policing those acts makes our communities safer. Drug use, though, isn’t aggressive. It has no victim. Yet we are treating it as a crime, which not only fails to address why a person is using drugs, it fails to offer a solution to actually help them.
I’m a politically conservative Christian wife and mother of three young sons. I value strong families and productive citizens. But criminalizing people for drug use is producing broken families and unemployable citizens through the crippling effect of a criminal record. If we really want flourishing people, we will lay down the wrong tools and focus all of our efforts and taxpayer dollars on the right tools – research-based prevention, treatment for addiction, and community support for people in recovery.
Recently I saw a young man in a local court who had been arrested for possession of an illegal drug and been in jail for several months. He had never been in trouble with the law before, and had a wife and young daughter at home. Who are we helping by imprisoning this young man? We’ve traumatized him with jail, destabilized his family, spent thousands of taxpayer dollars, potentially wrecked his employment opportunities for life, and haven’t addressed the health issue of his drug use. We’re losing on every front. Yet this scenario is playing out for thousands of Mississippians every year. Everyone can agree that this man shouldn’t have been using an illegal drug. But if our response to his bad decision only makes life worse for him, for his family, and for the rest of us, that’s the definition of a failed policy.
We should set aside the criminal threats and address the actual issue and offer people treatment, employment, and connection to the community. This won’t fix everything, but it will give more people the chance to get the help they need and live productive lives with their families. We don’t have to crush people who are broken. We can work towards giving every person the best opportunity to thrive. But we can only move towards that when we stop trying to scare people into the behavior we want and traumatizing them when they don’t comply. I supported a criminal approach to drug use for most of my life because I thought it was advancing my conservative values. I realize now that it’s working directly against them. Drug use and addiction are complex issues that demand our engagement, but they’re not criminal ones.