Ending the Big Lockup: Addiction and Drug Policy

After decades of bipartisan support for locking people up, an emerging bipartisan consensus admits that we lock too many people up.

This mass incarceration problem is the predictable result of our punitive approach to certain drugs.

Our addiction to this approach has been emotional; as the media highlights racially stereotyped villains, ruthless drug fiends, and endless “epidemics.” It has been material; as police departments balance budgets on forfeiture and overtime, private prisons lobby for mandatory minimums, and prosecutors parade splashy drug busts. But we have all been hooked on fear and vilification, high on the chase. And we have hit rock bottom.

May this emerging consensus be Step 1 of a Three Step program to crack that addiction.

Step 1 focuses on the rights of individuals to change their mood with marijuana, an apparent rite of passage for Presidents-in-waiting. Indeed, legalization, met with howls of hysteria a few years back, has yawned and brought forth—a business model.

In Step 2, however, adult drug use changes from a personal choice to a personal problem, as we confront chemically addictive, potentially lethal drugs; most famously, heroin.

Yet, blessedly, the emergent consensus acknowledges that the addicted need to be helped, not hunted. Hence the embrace of harm reduction, which may focus on the drug itself (testing for impurities, Narcan, needle exchange) or on the person (treatment, diversion, education).

But Step Two’s potential is crippled as long as our addiction to drug prohibition maintains its stranglehold.

For the punishing scorn we used to heap on the addicted is now righteously reserved for those who supply the drugs.

Help the prey, hunt the predator. Sounds good.

But we never ask how this hunt impacts those we wish to help.

Regardless of their personal path to addiction—genetic predisposition, thrill seeking, peer pressure, medication misuse, poverty, depression, or childhood abuse, nobody is better off when forced to get their drugs from profit-seeking people lacking both moral restraint and regulatory oversight.

People with drinking problems are not further burdened by having to purchase their drug from cartels or street gangs. And when they did (Prohibition), it was life devastating because they couldn’t know what was in their drink any more than those who overdose know what’s in their drug.

We don’t help the addicted by keeping them in “the game.”

Step 2, therefore, involves a full renunciation of the punishing, prohibitionist approach and requires us to take full responsibility for the regulation and control of even the hardest of hard drugs.

There is well-documented precedent at over 100 Safe Consumption Sites around the world to engender confidence in this commonsense approach. For decades, Swiss government clinics have provided affordable, tested heroin along with social supports to those who had repeatedly failed to kick their “habit.” And not only has their addiction rates dropped, but crime, disease, death, unemployment, and homelessness have also all fallen among the very people previously given up on and feared.

Good addiction treatment integrates people into their community and confronts their isolation. Good policing also integrates the police and ends the us/them dynamic tragically played out almost daily. Both are flexible, best practice examples of harm reduction. But criminalizing any aspect of adult addiction heightens the isolation of both the addicted and the police. It undermines best practices for both.

Step 3 acknowledges the damage our national addiction has done to individuals, families, and communities, overwhelmingly low-income and of color. Its task, already underway in modest measure, is to release with support and full enfranchisement our embarrassing number of non-violent “offenders.” To make amends.

In a time of emerging progressive boldness, a time of renouncing our fearful, defensive crouch, we need to complete all three steps, not in “order” and not in part—but all, now, fully.

There is neither need nor justification to settle for anything less.

Bill Fried is the co-Author of The Uses of the American Prison. He is retired from the staff of Law Enforcement Action Partnership and is on the Somerville Task Force regarding Supervised Consumption Sites. His op-eds have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Baltimore Sun and elsewhere.