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The Ordeal of Cameron Douglas


Cameron Douglas, the son of Academy Award winner Michael Douglas who is serving a five-year sentence for drug dealing, was just sentenced to an additional four and a half years in prison. Judge Richard Berman, who has to be one of the most clueless justices in the federal system, whacked Cameron with additional time for what is essentially Cameron’s very bad drug habit. The judge in his legal reasoning said: “I don’t believe that I have had another case ever…of a defendant who has so recklessly, and flagrantly, and wantonly and criminally acted in as destructive and manipulative a fashion.” I hear you judge, but I guess you don’t know what drug relapse is about.

What good is it to serve an admitted addict with additional time in prison which is costing the taxpayer a ton of dough to make a point? We know Cameron is a fuck up. It’s apparent after all the blundering and idiotic bad moves he has made. But in reality, is an additional four and a half years — two and a half more than the government sought to punish Cameron for his crime of addiction — worth it? Substance abuse is a disease, which unfortunately doesn’t go away overnight. I know that Douglas pissed off the judge but Berman should realize that our drug policies fail to account for the fact that drug use is a health issue and that relapse is an expected part of the recovery process.

In my experience doing a 12-year sentence for a nonviolent drug law violation, I witnessed hundreds of drug addicted people cycle in and out of the prison I was in. It’s well established that incarcerating people who use drugs does far more harm than good. It does nothing to treat addiction, it’s much more expensive than real treatment, and it’s an affront to human rights and civil liberties.

Unfortunately our government continues to lock up people with drug addictions instead of giving them treatment. Treatment is valid for fighting the demons of addiction and an effective tool in overcoming the government’s use of incarceration and punitive measures in response to nonviolent drug law offenses stemming from addiction.

At the recent U.S. Conference of Mayors’ annual meeting in Baltimore, it was pointed out that the U.S. has by far the highest incarceration rate in the world. It has 2.4 million of its residents in prison or jail, including roughly 500,000 Americans behind bars for drug law violations — an increase of 1200 percent since 1980. Criminal justice experts attribute the exploding U.S. prison population to harsh sentencing laws and record numbers of drug law offenders, many of whom have substance abuse problems.

And my repetitive motif is this question. Should we treat drug addiction as a criminal matter or a medical problem? For most people, treatment is much more effective than incarceration for breaking their addictions, yet our prisons are full of drug-addicted individuals. Nonviolent drug offenders should be given an opportunity to receive treatment, not jail time, for their drug use. This would be a more effective and a much more affordable solution for the individual and the community.

I am saddened that Cameron has to learn the hard way about his addiction. I feel sorry for him and his family and pray that he survives his prison experience. Prison is a horrible place and until he accepts responsibility for his actions, Douglas will forever be a prisoner to his drug addiction.

ANTHONY PAPA is the author of 15 Years to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom and manager of media relation for the Drug Policy Alliance. He can be reached at: 

Anthony Papa is the Manager of Media and Artist Relations for the Drug Policy Alliance and the author of This Side of Freedom: Life After Lockdown.

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