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Monday, November 2, 2009

The Crime of Addiction

The use of psychoactive substances is ubiquitous in human society and has been since our early pre-history. Mind-altering substances have the remarkable ability to change the way we think, feel and interact. For bettor worse, we like to use psychoactive substances, and we use them all the time. Most of us don’t see our personal consumption of these substances as being particularly criminal regardless of how additive, harmful, legal or illegal the substance we consume may be. Why is it that some substances that have a particularly high potential for abuse are perfectly legal, while other, less addictive substances are not? For that matter, why is it that we criminalize something that could be classified as typical mammalian behavior? Why is it that the United States criminalizes the disease of addiction?

Humans consume a multitude of substances for a multitude of reasons. We consume everything from an innocent cup of coffee to a cigarette, to antidepressants, sedatives, pharmaceutical stimulants, to the perceptibly less innocent street drugs and everything in between. We consume these substances on a daily basis, mainly for the simple purposes of coping, adapting, and surviving.
Just think about it, most of you reading this probably had coffee or some form of caffeinated beverage this morning. Take a moment to consider this morning ritual that you partake in on a daily basis. How long have you done this and more importantly, why? Is it because coffee is simply the most flavorful and delicious substance known to man? Or, could it be possible that you only drink it for the buzz? Likewise, does alcohol such as beer and wine really tastes that great? Of course not, however we acquire a taste for these substances because we desire their respective effects.

In the universe of drugs there are galaxies of uppers, downers, psychedelics, and dissociatives to choose from, many of them are highly addictive, and most are strictly controlled. It is true that some individuals will try these drugs a few times and walk away, while others will become chronic abusers of the substance, strongly dependent, and hopelessly addicted. Fortunately for those individuals, most reputable doctors consider addiction to be an illness. Additionally there are ways to treat their substance dependence and abuse problems. Unfortunately for those individuals, their addiction also typically makes them criminals by default because for the most part, drug use is seen as a crime by our government.
Sadly, there isn’t necessarily a lot of sympathy for addicts in our society. Like sexually transmitted diseases, many see addiction as disease that is one acquires by choice of action, and a disease of vice. This may be true to a certain extent, however for many addicts, the choice was already made for them by their DNA, and their exposure to mind altering substances in their childhood environment. This idea being contrary to the former motif of addiction being a moral failing, or a disease of choice

Furthermore, by the logic that addiction is a disease that one chooses to acquire, any communicable disease could be considered a disease that one chooses to acquire by virtue of one’s desire to intermingle in society. Imagine that an individual acquires some terrible infection, he or she goes to their doctor and he tells them “too bad, you should have never gone outside, but since you did, you have chosen to get this disease and thus there is nothing I can do to help.” To make matters worse, the drug that person needs to make them feel better is illegal, and if they are caught with or trying to get the drug, they could be arrested and jailed.
In a sense, this is what addicts face on a daily basis. An individual dependant on a substance may feel fine when they have gotten a fix, but when that fix wears off, they will need another, and it won’t be cheap. Withdrawal is a powerful motivator for the addict, as the symptoms of withdrawal, depending on the drug can range from severely unpleasant, to debilitating, to even life threatening. Thus that individual has no choice but seek out their substance of abuse, or face the harsh reality of withdrawal and any other underlying emotional or mental problems that spurred their drug use in the first place.

This is the reality of Americans who are dependent on illegal substances. Their doctors tell them that they are ill, yet their government tells them that they are criminals because of their illness. Their doctor (if they have a doctor, or insurance) may be able to prescribe them medication to stave off withdrawals, but should they have a relapse with their drug of choice, and if they are caught with that drug, they will be arrested, prosecuted, humiliated, and imprisoned, simply because they were sick.

From this point, the addict can expect his or her life to become progressively worse. Not only are they ill, now the individual is a convict, convicted of possessing the drug that is the manifestation of their illness. Being a convicted felon is a terrible thing for an individual to experience. As a convict one may not leave the country, they may not vote, and they may find it difficult to find adequate employment or housing. In addition since they have been convicted of possessing an illegal drug, they are no longer eligible for student loans or any form of government loan or grant, and thus they are deprived of any means of improving their lives.

Now I ask you, is this fair? Is this right? Is this what we as Americans call justice? I think, or at least I hope not. It is time for Americans to encourage their government to change they way that substance abuse is approached. Our nation needs to shift its focus to harm-reduction and education, rather than arrest and prosecution.

One of the major flaws of our nation’s drug policy is our government’s unwillingness to accept the tenets of harm-reduction. First of all, what is harm-reduction? Well, its pretty simple, the basic idea is to reduce the potential for drug users to harm themselves or others in the course of their drug use. This process involves a number of steps such as providing clean hypodermic needles, providing purity testing, even providing safe drugs and a safe environment to use to addicts.
All of this may seem pretty liberal to the citizens of this country, and some may fear that such steps will only encourage more people to use drugs. However, the idea of harm reduction, and the steps that I have mentioned above are not new ideas, in fact they are old ones that have been employed for some time by a small European nation that we call the Netherlands.

Like other nations of the world, the Netherlands is not exempt from drug problems; the difference is how they have chosen to handle the issue. Rather than seeing drug abuse as a moral and legal issue, the Dutch see drug addiction and abuse for what it is, an illness. Likewise, rather than pursing our own corporalistic approach of prosecuting and imprisoning citizens with drug problems, citizens of the Netherlands have adopted the approach of harm-reduction.

This does not mean that drugs are legal in the Netherlands nor is their country comprised of mostly drug users. On the contrary, drugs are still very much illegal, and unlike the United States and many other European nations, drug use is relatively low. This is odd considering that most of us here in the states see the city of Amsterdam in the Netherlands as the Mecca of marijuana. However, despite their liberal drug policies only about ten percent of all high school students in the Netherlands have used or do use soft drugs such as cannabis. In the United States almost half of all high school students have tried cannabis in spite of the outrageously disproportionate legal and social consequences.

Of course, I am not advocating the legalization of all drugs, however, our government needs to reassess how effective the war on drugs (and consequently the war against its own citizens) really is. Furthermore, our legal system needs to treat citizens with substance abuse problems as people with psychological and biological illnesses, rather than as criminals. In order to do this, the very thing that makes them a criminal; the possession of a drug, needs to be decriminalized, if not controlled outright by the government.

It is time for the United States Government to start seeing addiction for what it is, an illness, and not a crime. Furthermore, it is time for our nations leaders to realize that although addiction is an illness, it is hardly communicable, and purging drug users from our society is for one impossible (as nearly all of us use drugs), and secondly a waste of time. It is time for our government to stop harassing drugs users, and to start focusing on organized crime and drug traffickers, perhaps then our government would have a drug policy that actually makes a difference.


  1. You know what? I think it is about time we came to the mature realization that just because another country has a certain way of dealing with the drug problems, that doesn't neccesarily mean it is right for this country. We need to focus on what can help as a society the most...and that means more education and more help for those seeking treatment at a drug rehab center.

  2. I agree, and I feel that we need to stop treating those who need help like criminals, and instead treat them like human beings with legitimate medical problems.

  3. Good blog. I'm a Canadian weed smoker from way back. We're a little more progressive than you folks and would be much more so if not for our neighbours to the south. Political pressure is very real.

    What I really wanted to comment on is the google ads running on your site. In direct opposition to what your message is. Not only that - pretty sure that it's an ad for Narconon, a front-man for Scientology. You need to attend to that. I'm pretty sure you can restrict the ad content through google.

  4. Hi,

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