Addiction Treatment vs. Punishment

The War on Drugs

Addiction TreatmentA look at some of the statistics connected to drug use in America and abroad is enough to shock, startle and sober someone up. It prompts different reactions. Some feel we should just make all drugs legal since people are using them anyway, then we can monitor and regulate them as we do medical drugs. Others feel the answer is in law enforcement and stepping up the fight against the illicit drug trade.

It’s true that most of the drugs into the US come from other countries, but the demand is what fuels it. The “War on Drugs” was launched by President Richard Nixon in 1971 and further entrenched into the public consciousness with the establishment of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1973. Since then, this war has cost an estimated one trillion dollars.

In 1980, there were approximately 40,000 Americans incarcerated for drug offenses, a figure which has risen to 500,000 today. The cost to care for these inmates is about $12.6 billion per year.

In 2013, an estimated 24.6 million Americans aged 12 or older were current (past month) illicit drug users, equating to 9.4% of the population aged 12 or older. Meanwhile, the number of drug-related deaths has risen past 37,000 per year, fueled by a spike in pharmaceutical abuse. That’s over 100 casualties per day.

And what happens to those caught up in illicit drug use? A certain percentage of them wind up behind bars. Out of over 2 million people currently incarcerated in local, state and federal prisons across America, about 25% are in for non-violent drug offenses. One could argue that the overall population has simply risen. However, the figure was less than 10% in 1980. So along with the prison population in general, the ratio of those behind bars for drug offenses has increased considerably. Meanwhile, the rates of addiction and overdose outside prison walls continue to rise.

New Trends in Addiction

The late 1990’s saw a significant increase in prescriptions from doctors for opioid painkillers like hydrocodone (Vicodin, etc.) and oxycodone (OxyContin, etc.), evidently the result of some well-placed messages to physicians from peer groups. The upshot of this trend was a steady escalation in opioid addiction rates. By 2011, Americans were using 80% of the world’s painkillers.

Globally, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC), 450 tons of heroin is distributed worldwide, produced majorly by Afghanistan and Myanmar. The price and availability of heroin, combined with DEA crack downs on pill pushing, has led to another development in the US: a spike in the number of opioid addicts switching to heroin.

Heavy use of alcohol and marijuana is a forerunner to use of cocaine, MDMA (ecstasy), meth and other hard drugs. But the widespread acceptance of psychotropic drugs, even when used “as prescribed”, has most certainly added fuel to the fire. Case in point, psycho-stimulants such as Ritalin (methylphenidate) and Adderall (amphetamine) are chemically similar to cocaine and are even in the same DEA classification of Schedule 2 narcotics. Benzodiazepine (anti-anxiety) drugs such as Valium and Xanax, which are central nervous system (CNS) depressants, turn people into drug addicts under the protection of their legality. Meanwhile, pharmaceutical giants rake in billions.

Incarceration vs. Rehabilitation

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), reports the overall cost of illicit drug and alcohol abuse in terms of law enforcement, incarceration, lost productivity and healthcare at almost $430 billion annually. NIDA also states the following:

“Treatment offers the best alternative for interrupting the drug use/criminal justice cycle for offenders with drug problems…Untreated substance using offenders are more likely to relapse into drug use and criminal behavior, jeopardizing public health and safety and taxing criminal justice system resources. Additionally, treatment consistently has been shown to reduce the costs associated with lost productivity, crime, and incarceration caused by drug use.”

Some parts of government are starting to take more notice of the need for treatment and are taking action. The governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, recently announced that $12 million would go toward drug addiction treatment and prevention initiatives. “We have to make investments in time and in resources to change how we think about these issues and how we treat them because we know that addiction can happen to anyone,” Gov. Christie stated.

Even the federal government has been looking at the issue in a different way. Back in 2012, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) stated, “It’s very clear we can’t arrest our way out of this problem. The availability of quality treatment and the engagement of the public health sector and primary care physicians in drug issues is very critical.” The government was, at least at the time, looking into the drug policies of other nations in search of fresh approaches to law enforcement and treatment.

There is no doubt that drug trafficking, proliferation, addiction, and crime go hand in hand. The murder rates in certain parts of Mexico, all connected to the drug cartels, are notorious. In 2010, there were over 3,000 murders in Ciudad Juarez, the Mexican city bordering El Paso, Texas. The drugs coming in from South America through Mexico are primarily consumed by Americans. Cocaine is a huge seller with upwards of 170 tons used annually in the US.

Supply & Demand

No matter how many billions are put into cutting the drug supply and throwing drug addicts in jail, only cutting the demand will create a dent in the problem. Big pharmaceutical companies spend millions (even billions) on advertising to create demand and create want for their products. Tobacco companies and alcoholic drink makers do the same. The efforts to legalize marijuana are funded by venture capitalists to the tune of millions of dollars. Why? Because there is a lot of money to be made in it. But it all boils down to demand. Whether we speak of legal or illicit substances, reducing demand is the ultimate answer, broken down into two main categories:

1. Prevention of drug use through education and enlightenment.

2. Treating users and addicts through effective methods of detoxification and rehabilitation.


Prevention includes education into specific drugs and what they do to the body, mind and spirit. We have found it to be very effective when we educate youth on the truth about drugs. There are a range of excellent materials that serve this purpose – websites, documentaries, films, booklets and videos that go into detail about illicit drugs, prescription drugs, alcohol, marijuana, inhalants, synthetic drugs, and other new trends as they arise. We’re not talking Refer Madness, the 1936 film, or even “Say No to Drugs”.

“Say No” has had success but it has a couple drawbacks: It doesn’t elaborate on WHY and it also gives a direct order, and teenagers love to disobey orders. Just being told to not do something is enough to motivate many young people to do the exact opposite, i.e. do the thing they are being told not to do.

The approach we have found workable is “The Truth About Drugs” where we provide education, invite a conversation on the topic and encourage youth to make up their minds. We don’t insult their intelligence by assuming the subject is too deep for them. When they know the truth, the likelihood of them using drugs diminishes greatly.


Treatment vs. PunishmentThe many facets of what could be called enlightenment go well beyond drug education. Here we explore WHY people turn to drugs in the first place. Without any workable therapy, with an utter void in place of spirituality, with a sense of despair about the future, it’s no wonder that millions turn to drugs. There are many ways to enlighten people so they discover resolutions for their problems other than seeking the false and destructive “solution” of drugs. These approaches include:

1.   Support from friends and family
2.   Nutrition and medical assistance
3.   Hard work, productivity
4.   Goal setting, planning and attainment
5.   The arts, music, hobbies, creativity in general
6.   Vocational training and education
7.   Remedies for study and literacy
8.  Communication training
9.   Sports and athleticism
10. Travel, outdoor activities
11.  Life skills training
12. Workable therapy
13. Ethics and integrity training
14. Spiritual and faith-based study

All of the above can be utilized in a holistic rehabilitation setting. However, any of these can also be applied as a preventative action and to raise one’s overall quality of life. Ideally, drugs aren’t even on the table, literally or figuratively.


Detoxification is an essential step because it addresses physical and psychological reactions to addiction. Millions of drug users, whether it’s alcohol, opioids, heroin, cocaine, pharmaceuticals or any other drug, simply cannot stop due to the intense withdrawal symptoms experienced when they attempt to stop. Depending on the drug or drugs in question, symptoms can include nausea, fever, chills, cold sweats, shaking, depression, anxiety, and a host of others. Some drugs produce potentially fatal reactions and require close medical supervision. Medical and holistic detoxification techniques help the addict through this period safely.


Rehabilitation and recovery encompass the steps to help the addict deal with the many issues relating to their drug use. It can include any or all of the steps of education and enlightenment mentioned earlier. There are inpatient and outpatient approaches to rehab. Inpatient is preferable since it provides a complete environment for the former user to recover.

But it is true that the state of detoxification and recovery across the US is rather antiquated. Just as prisons have a high rate of recidivism, too many rehab programs have a high rate of relapse. Methadone for opiate addicts is a flimsy Band-Aid at the very best. The same exact Twelve Steps do not work on everyone. The cookie-cutter approach has not been working.

Holistic practices combined with evidence-based methods hold the most promise in dealing with the multi-faceted nature of substance abuse and addiction. Governments are notoriously slow in catching onto workable systems, so it’s up to us as Americans and citizens of the world to take action.