Back to News & Commentary

Treating Addiction as a Disease, not a Crime

A pair of hands in handcuffs
A pair of hands in handcuffs
Rebecca McCray,
Former Managing Editor,
American Civil Liberties Union
Share This Page
May 23, 2012

Like many who suffer from addiction, Cameron Douglas’ path to recovery has not been without setbacks. Currently incarcerated in federal prison on a five-year sentence for drug distribution and heroin possession, the 33-year-old son of actor Michael Douglas has struggled with substance abuse since his twenties. In December, Douglas made headlines when a federal judge sentenced him to an additional four and a half years after he was caught with drugs in prison. This harsh punishment has attracted the attention of a team of doctors and advocacy groups, who have come together to file a legal brief addressing both the severity of his sentence, as well as the court’s failure to recognize what Douglas and other individuals battling addiction really need: treatment.

Douglas’ case has attracted attention because of his celebrity, but it is emblematic of a much larger problem across this country: we approach drug addiction and abuse as a law enforcement issue rather than a public health problem. Consequently, although medical professionals recognize that drug addiction is a chronic disease, the first stop for the addicted is often the criminal justice system. Because our drug policies emphasize a punitive rather than rehabilitative response to substance abuse and addiction, they fail to address the actual cause of the illness, which only exacerbates the disease and results in relapse and recidivism. Research indicates, for example, that cravings for heroin and subsequent relapse can occur weeks and months after initial withdrawal symptoms subside, indicating that detoxification is useful only when paired with a long-term treatment plan. Douglas’ repeated relapse is not an indication that he is simply “reckless and destructive” as Judge Richard Berman suggested at his sentencing, but rather that he is fighting a losing battle with a fierce addiction in an environment that only impedes his recovery.

Our counterproductive drug policies have swept thousands of nonviolent drug offenders into the net of our criminal justice system. Once they are there, they are likely to stay: data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics indicates that 66.7% of drug offenders return to prison within three years of their release. These high rates of recidivism could be avoided if we recognized the ample evidence that treatment is far more cost-effective than incarceration.

It is long overdue that we reframe our approach to drug use in America – perhaps by taking a cue from countries such as Portugal, where decriminalization has proven to be a smart, cost-saving move. Five years after abolishing criminal penalties for personal possession of drugs, more Portuguese are seeking treatment for their addictions, rates of HIV infections from shared needles have decreased and drug use overall has declined. If we followed a similar approach, our prisons would not be filled with nonviolent drug offenders, and Douglas’ story would not be one of senseless incarceration. It would be foolish to ignore the abundance of evidence that clearly points to the success of a health-based, rather than punishment-based, approach to drug abuse. Americans like Douglas need help – not time behind bars.

Learn more about drug law reform: Sign up for breaking news alerts, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Learn More About the Issues on This Page