Take Drugs Out of Drug Policy.

AuthorCastillo, Tessie

The biggest mistake we make when discussing drug policy is that we keep talking about drugs. That creates a debate that merely ping-pongs between calls for more rehab and calls for more prison.

Even amid a presidential campaign, when standing out is a good idea, few people in either political party transcend this artificial divide to ask the real question: Why, in one of the most abundant countries in the world, do nearly twenty million people have what's recognized as a substance use disorder?

Behavioral science has already provided the answers. We know that genetics, metabolism, adverse childhood experiences, chronic stress from such factors as poverty, and mental illness put some people at high risk for drug abuse.

"Substance use disorders in the United States are often lumped into other diseases of despair, such as suicide and alcoholism," explains Dr. Blake Fagan, addiction specialist at the Mountain Area Health Education Center in western North Carolina. "People who have no job prospects or health insurance are more likely to have problems."

There is no doubt that problematic drug use has profound negative consequences for people and communities across the country. The United States has the highest share of population with substance use disorders and the highest rate of drug overdose death in the world. Although overdose deaths have fallen slightly, provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows 68,500 fatalities in 2018, more than the Vietnam and Iraq wars combined.

Examples of sensible drug policy initiatives include universal health care, education, affordable housing, and legally guaranteed living wages. On the surface, such proposals might not seem related to substance use. But effective drug policy would seek to reduce exposure to factors that increase the risk of substance abuse, such as trauma, stress, and instability.

"So often, problematic drug use is bound up with hopelessness and broader societal and economic challenges," says Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Yet instead of supporting people who are struggling, our society has compounded the problem with punitive approaches--the war on drugs.

"[We] punish people involved with drugs, not only through arrests and incarceration, but also deportations, evictions, loss of child custody, and barriers to jobs and education that keep entire families and communities trapped in a desperate vicious cycle."


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