I caught a few minutes of Chris Hayes’ show on Monday night with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in McDowell County, West Virginia. The conversation turned to the problem of opiate addiction. It made me think: what if the Trump administration took the challenge of helping those addicted to opiates as seriously as it took dismantling environmental regulations? Specifically what if it issued a mandate that for every person incarcerated for possession we put two in treatment? Let’s explore.
The first question to answer is: Does a disparity exist between those incarcerated for possession and those treated? Statistics are not as readily available as you might think. I am mixing sources, years and certainly methodology; yet the picture is clear. Numerically there is a huge disparity. (This doesn’t even begin to take into account the inequity of outcomes based on race and economic class. That is a subject for another day; if interested I suggest you read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.)
Using round numbers 1.25 million Americans were arrested for drug possession in 2015. In 2014, 2.25 million Americans were incarcerated; 85%, or 1.9 million, of them on drug charges. The source for those numbers is drugpolicy.org.
Using round numbers again, in 2008 23.5 million Americans had a dependency problem. Only 2.6 million of them were being treated by a “specialty facility”. (Two notes on “mixing”: This set of numbers included alcohol dependency which is not today’s topic. Also the numbers are from 2008.) Using that base of 2.6 million, the study tells us that the dependency distribution was 14.1% for heroin and 5.9% for opiates. 17% or 442,000 were dependent on marijuana while my above combined “supper category” accounted for 20% or 520,000. The source for all these numbers is drugabuse.gov.
I joined heroin and opiates together because the word coming from the public is that many people are turning to heroin when they can no longer obtain and/or afford opiate based prescription drugs. In too many cases heroin is cheaper and more readily available.
I cited marijuana for a specific reason. While I am not are user and I hate the smell of the drug, I feel it should be legalized and controlled much like beverage alcohol. Few, if any, turn to it as an alternative to the painkillers their physicians and big pharma allowed them to become addicted to.
Looking at my (admittedly flawed) numbers a pattern still emerges. Roughly we are incarcerating two Americans with a drug dependency for every one we treat. The exact opposite of how we would approach the challenge if we were serious about solving it.
I’m not saying incarceration is never a sufficient deterrent or that no rehabilitation efforts take place behind prison wall. I am also not claiming anything near 100% success in any rehabilitation program or facility. While not armed with statistics, if I had to bet I’d wager on a rehab program that releases the patient back into society with a safety net structure around them over a too often private prison system that sends a former inmate back into society with the deck stacked against them. Add to that the fact that the private prison system has a financial incentive to see the former inmate fail and return to their custody.
I’m not talking about the high level drug dealers here. In too many cases I’m talking about good, inherently honest people who circumstances have conspired against. I’m talking about the manual laborer who hurt their back on the job and is trying to get by with controlling the pain. The physician puts them on a painkiller to placate them and control the issue affordably. For any one of a number of reasons insurance stops paying for the painkilling drug. Then this regular American turns to the street to stop the pain.
We also have the stay at home mom who is busy taking care of her family. The painkiller works until the supply is interrupted. She still has her obligations which she takes seriously. In order to take what she feels is good care of her children and husband she finds an alternative sources of painkillers.
At their core these are not criminals! They are good Americans who have become victims of circumstances that they are not capable of handling on their own. Helping them is the sensible and most economically efficient thing to do. Locking them up only to release them into an environment where they are all but guaranteed to become repeat offenders is simply unwise!
If President Trump cared about the less fortunate among us as much as he cares about making it easier for as few greedy Republican financiers to make some extra money that they can well live without he could simultaneously help our environment and our people. I guess that is too much to ask of our current leader.
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