When trauma drives drug addiction, jail makes it worse

By Guitta Hogue

We are spending millions of dollars keeping people addicted to drugs in the criminal justice system. We could be using that money to restore them to their families and communities through evidence-based treatment. As a therapist, I’ve counseled many people struggling to overcome addiction. Thrill-seeking is not the driving factor for anyone - even teens - with addiction.  I’ve found that addicted people often have a history of trauma such as grief, relational loss, chronic pain, childhood neglect, or abuse.  Even worse, they sometimes face the resulting emotional or physical pain without healthy family or friends supporting them in their journey towards healing. 

Many of us have a tendency to escape physical and emotional pain using shopping, carbs, screen time, sleeping, chocolate, exercise, or smoking.  Obviously, our vices are forgiven more often than hard drugs in our society.  Yet, our forgivable vices activate the same chemicals in our brains as heroin and opioids, so why should drug use be criminalized?  For some people struggling with addiction, painful memories of being violated as a child will not fade until they get their next hit.  For others, facing a lifetime of back pain, inhibiting work and sleep, a person may try to escape the pain with more pills than prescribed. The research on Adverse Childhood Experiences shows that unprocessed emotions from past trauma can result in relational isolation and even life-changing physical ailments. Their pain can snowball to more pain. The experience of immensely painful memories and emotions can drive them to numb through drug use.  As we navigate the issue of the failed ‘war on drugs’ we must seek to better understand people with addictions. Understanding leads to empathy, and empathy is always the beginning of positive change.  

Right now, people are imprisoned solely for using drugs. Incarcerating them is not curing them. It is not true that cleaning their system of the chemicals while incarcerated cures their addiction, as once thought. It is easy to relapse when changes in their resources, circumstances, and support are not made. Since incarceration is expensive and does not help end our addiction crisis, we could use those resources to help addicted people get their life back.

As a mother, if one of my three boys had an issue with addiction, I would want to ensure that he was receiving the care I knew would help him recover. This means I would be looking for treatment programs, accountability, support groups, mentors, and the like. As a therapist, I know that sending him into the criminal justice system would not address the reason for his addiction but may well make it worse. Criminalizing addiction is not the solution; treating it is.

Guitta Hogue is a wife and homeschooling mom, as well as a therapist in Madison. She can be reached at guitta@lifeworksms.com

Guest Contributor