It is the sign of a healthy society when government faces its mistakes and develops more effective policies. This is a process we see unfolding as the U.S. government reconsiders its drug policy and sets forth a “new national approach” that focuses on treatment rather than punishment.
In April, the Obama Administration released its 2012 National Drug Control Strategy, which builds on the President’s inaugural National Drug Control Strategy, published in 2010. The strategy is grounded in three research-based premises that are now widely accepted in the treatment field:
• Drug addiction is not a moral failing, but a preventable and treatable chronic brain disease.
• People can and do recover from addiction.
• Criminal justice reforms are needed to stop the cycle of drug use, crime, incarceration and rearrest.
The strategy also rejects certain approaches that are not backed by research or have proven unsuccessful:
• We cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem through a punitive “war on drugs.”
• Legalization of drugs is not the solution to the nation’s drug problem.
Punishment clearly has been a failed policy. More Americans than ever are dying from drug-induced death and more than 7 million people are under the supervision of the criminal justice system, many of whom have drug offenses. As evidence continues to mount that addiction is a chronic brain disease, our nation’s policies must destigmatize addiction and grant access to treatment for those who need it.
Although overall drug use is down in the U.S., the Obama Administration has not overlooked two remaining drug-related challenges: the prescription drug epidemic and the millions of people who need substance abuse treatment but do not receive it. If it is followed through, the new approach to drug policy will respond to these challenges by diverting nonviolent drug offenders into treatment and expanding access to addiction treatment.
For example, the Affordable Care Act will require insurers to cover treatment for drug addiction the same way they would other chronic diseases. The new strategy also calls for more community-based programs, such as drug-free communities and youth campaigns. While the government aims to cut down on prison costs, it will continue spending around $10 billion on prevention and treatment. In addition, numerous efforts are underway to educate the public about proper disposal of prescription medications and to crack down on pill mills.
Although it is unpopular with those in favor of legalization, I remain optimistic about the “revolutionary shift” promised by this new policy. In line with the latest research, it is a welcome and long-overdue change to treat addiction as a public health issue rather than a criminal one.
David Sack, M.D., is board certified in Psychiatry, Addiction Psychiatry, and Addiction Medicine. As CEO of Elements Behavioral Health he oversees a network of addiction treatment centers including The Recovery Place drug rehab, Promises Treatment Centers, The Ranch outside Nashville, and The Sexual Recovery Institute.
“Policy” photo available from Shutterstock.
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Last reviewed: 11 May 2012