“This,” intoned the 1980s TV narrator voice as we watched butter frying in a pan, “is drugs.” Then an egg dropped into the butter to the accompaniment of ominous music.
“This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?” the narrator asked.
Well, as it turns out, yes. We do have questions. For example, while we can all agree that hard drugs like methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine are terrible for you, and most of us duly avoid such drugs, we can’t all agree on what to do about the folks who decide to go ahead and fry up their brains anyway (metaphorically speaking).
The fact is, a great many people use drugs despite knowing they’re harming themselves. That’s the ugly nature of addiction.
Of course, we can argue without end about whether drug abuse is a choice deserving of punishment, or an illness that merits treatment.
The difficulty is we all know, deep down, that it’s a bit of both. But that doesn’t tell us how best to address the problem. And we must find the answer, because when drug addiction is allowed to take hold, it’s often not just the addict who suffers. Some wreak havoc on families, some abuse their kids, some fail at their jobs, and some wind up homeless. Some crash their cars, sometimes killing or injuring others. Many clog up our jails, and then get tossed back out on the street — a bit worse for the wear — only to work their way back to jail a week, a month or a year down the line.
Society has largely responded to this problem by treating addicts as criminals, whether or not they have committed crimes beyond having drugs on their persons.
Recently, Oregonians altered this approach slightly, reducing personal-use possession of drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor. Reaction to de-felonization has been mixed, including from law enforcement.
There is a place that’s decriminalized drug possession even further. In Portugal, a person caught with enough heroin for 10 days of personal use is given a citation and appears before a “dissuasion panel.” Repeat “offenders” are labeled addicts and are ordered to obtain treatment, which can be counseling in some cases or opioid substitution medications in others.
Needless to say, the Portuguese were widely viewed as nuts by the global community when they instituted this program 17 years ago. But they’ve since proved the critics wrong. Drug deaths are down, HIV infections are down, and overall drug use has actually fallen.
In America today, by contrast, opioid use is skyrocketing. Typically, it starts with over-prescription of painkillers and ends with purchase of the street drug heroin.
A quick scan of the Douglas County Jail’s inmates will typically show a fair percentage who are there strictly, or primarily, on drug possession crimes. We’re spending a lot of money on these folks, but are we spending it the right way?
The Portuguese decriminalization plan didn’t take place in a vacuum. It was coupled with resources for health care and treatment.
And that’s the real flaw in Oregon’s plan. Sure, we’ll save money at first, not caging up our addicts, but until we are willing to spend the savings on treatment, our problem isn’t going away. Many addicts will ultimately still wind up in jail, after committing another crime under influence of the drugs they just can’t quit on their own. The revolving door will just keep spinning.
No doubt that’s why the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police and the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association approved of de-felonization, but with the caveat that it “will only produce positive results if additional drug treatment resources accompany this change in policy.”
We couldn’t agree more.