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Addiction experts agree that ‘War on Drugs’ has failed; treatment is a better option


The U.S. government has been fighting a full-scale war on drugs for almost four decades, but according to addiction experts, the war has been an expensive failure.

Jeanne McAlister, CEO/founder of the McAlister Institute, one of San Diego’s largest alcohol and drug rehabilitation centers, says that trying to stop the flow of drugs and locking up offenders has failed, and it’s time to look at a different approach. McAlister, a former addict, has been clean and sober for 58 years. She has also written a book on America’s cocaine problem.

“The government spent more money on interdiction than on treatment, prevention and education. Interdiction failed. Treatment works!” said McAlister.

Constance Scharff, Ph.D, director of Addiction Research at Cliffside Malibu, a drug rehabilitation facility, says the War on Drugs was doomed to fail, because it didn’t address the reasons behind drug addiction.

“The ‘War on Drugs’ looks at substance abuse and addiction as a problem of criminal activity and illicit business,” said Scharff. “If we stopped the flow of drugs into the country, then the morally bankrupt users would have to stop using and we’d see a reduction in crime both from dealers/cartels and users, or so the logic goes. Lack of supply would be a deterrent to use. That’s the sentiment that undergirded our drug interdiction efforts. “

However, government officials are slowly beginning to look at alternatives to mass incarceration and stopping the flow of drugs. One of the reasons behind this might be because the face of addiction is changing. In the ‘70s and ‘80s drug addiction was mainly seen as a problem with urban dwellers, mainly Black and Brown people, and the government had no problem passing harsh laws that sentenced them to long jail terms.  However, jails are not equipped to help drug addicts recover from their problems, according to Scharff.

“The majority of jails and prisons do not have treatment programs and those that do are substandard when compared to the type of treatment available outside of jail,” said Scharff.  “There are a few small pilot programs in corrections facilities that have some promise, but overall, one gets far better substance abuse treatment outside of corrections facilities.”

However, in recent years, America’s mainly White heartland has seen as rash of drug overdoses and addiction cases as people who were prescribed opium-based pain killers, switched to cheaper heroin after doctors cut them off. Music legend Prince was believed to have been addicted to pain pills and was seeking treatment for his problem. According to The Minneapolis Star Tribune, Beltrami County, Minn. recently reported four heroin overdoses, including one death, in one day.

Michael Botticelli, the nation’s “drug czar,” admits that we need to start treating drug addiction as a medical problem, not a criminal problem.

“We’ve come to understand that our largely punitive responses to people with substance abuse disorders is ineffective,” said Botticelli in an interview with PBS’ Frontline. “It’s inhumane. And it’s costly.”

McAlister says she’s encouraged by Botticelli’s approach.

“I believe the new drug czar is aware of changes that need to be made and is a proponent of treatment,” she said.

Scharff agrees. She says the government is beginning to realize that drug addiction is a medical problem.

“Research has been clear that addiction is not a choice or a moral failing, but a problem in which the structure and function of the brain changes in response to the addictive behavioral pattern,” Scharff said.  “With the opioid epidemic devastating communities across the nation, this changed understanding of what addiction is at its root is hitting home, encouraging decision-makers to look for treatment options instead of incarceration for many addicts.”

In searching for a new way to approach drug addiction, the United States might look to the example of  Portugal which “decriminalized” possession of small quantities of all drugs in 2001. Drug offenders arrested by the police were sent to court-ordered treatment. (However, Portugal has universal healthcare.)

The Portuguese experiment seems to be working. According to figures from the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, drug use has been steadily falling.

Scharff said addiction experts see this as a successful model.

“Everyone in addiction research is familiar with the Portuguese model, because it has had so much success in changing the substance abuse landscape in Portugal,” said Scharff.  “Something similar absolutely could be done in the United States if there was the cultural will to provide treatment resources to addicts. While it is far less expensive to provide quality treatment to addicts than it is to incarcerate them, to date the public has been tepid about ‘giving away’ medical treatment. That is the greatest stumbling block to providing quality care to addicts in this country, in my opinion.”