The critically-acclaimed film Requiem for a Dream centered on a group of heroin abusing friends. In the movie, the friends’ desperation to satisfy their addictions resulted in their ultimate destruction. The film is quite the accurate display of the devastating effects of substance abuse and the failures of our justice system to adequately treat such individuals. Today, millions of Americans are presently suffering from the opioid epidemic, costing the U.S. billions of dollars annually. Elected officials are deciphering on the best route to aiding citizens struggling with addictions like those in Requiem for a Dream. With a broad range of proposals from elected representatives, which is the best option, if any, to solving the epidemic?
As noted by the Washington Times, Attorney General Jeff Sessions used his first public address to comment on the opioid epidemic by stating, “It is ravaging our communities, bringing crime and violence to our streets, and destroying the lives of too many Americans.” Addiction is certainly ravaging our communities. An estimated ninety-one Americans die each day from an opium overdose, as found by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. In an attempt to extinguish the epidemic, on May 10th Sessions ordered the Justice Department to crack down on those abusing illicit drugs through support for mandatory minimums. First introduced by former President Bill Clinton in his 1994 Crime Bill, mandatory minimums substantially increased sentencing times for repeat drug offenders, as explained in Liberty Nation’s previous article.
Senator Rand Paul (R – KY) and other elected officials have shown their opposition to the Attorney General’s push for harsher mandatory minimums. In a piece written by Senator Paul for CNN, he argues that the memo by Sessions would ultimately lead to “ruining more lives” and that most drug offenders commit nonviolent acts, undeserving of imprisonment.
Senator Paul views the opioid epidemic as a health crisis and notes that incarceration has proven ineffective and devastating for many. Research seems to agree with Senator Paul by showing that those struggling with an illicit drug addiction have a seventy-seven percent rate of recidivism. In addition, under mandatory minimums, the annual cost to the U.S. related to health care, crime, and loss of productivity resulting from illicit drugs is over $193 billion, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. These findings certainly indicate that the Attorney General’s memo requires modifications.
What are the views of American citizens on the issue? With whom do they most agree, Senator Paul or Attorney General Sessions? According to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, Americans have largely rejected the Attorney General’s severity on drug offenders and sided with Senator Paul, with sixty-seven percent believing that the government should focus more on treatment than incarceration for those with drug addictions.
Not only would focus on treatment over incarceration likely decrease the billions spent on care for substance abuse patients per year, but it would also dissipate the follies of the stigmas surrounding addiction. A large percentage of drug offenders are not simply “bad seeds,” but show a high rate of childhood physical or sexual abuse and mental illness. According to the National Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), a federally funded organization for abused children, about eighty percent of male and female illicit drug offenders were sexually or physically abused during childhood.
Should we honestly be convicting abused individuals to lifelong drug offense felonies due to a lapse in judgment that is primarily the result of past physical or sexual abuse? Americans and research findings side with treating nonviolent individuals with drug addiction with sympathy. These individuals require healing and treatment, instead of lifelong drug offense charges that will ultimately hinder their healthy incorporation into society after recovery.
Being that Americans significantly side with treatment over incarceration, what treatment options exist for drug offenders? As one possible solution, many states have succeeded in offering admission to residential treatment facilities with a success rate of about one in three. Also, advances in medicine have allowed better pharmacological treatments for patients going through opiate withdrawals. Because the brain has specific opioid receptors makes opium addiction particularly extreme and hazardous, and medical treatment necessary for recovery. Although these solutions have not demonstrated perfect results, they have proven more effective than imprisonment from mandatory minimums proposed by Attorney General Session and have prevented many individuals from having the same unfortunate fate as so many other addicts.