Drug policy should focus on helping addicts, not jailing them


Two years ago, my 23-year-old brother became addicted to painkillers after breaking his leg and undergoing several operations to repair it.

Last year, while he was checking into rehab for abusing OxyContin, I was drafting a chapter in my new book calling for drug legalization. It was a difficult moment to believe in individual liberty: I felt firsthand the effects of what it's like when people make bad decisions. I saw how hard my brother struggled to get clean, first moving forward and then backsliding again into substance abuse.

One of the more compelling arguments for the war on drugs is that if we allow people to freely buy and use all sorts of currently illegal drugs, some people will end up becoming addicted when they otherwise would have been deterred by criminal penalties.

This, however, is a false choice: It ignores the fact that many people are - as my brother was before treatment - already addicted to harmful substances. Local, state and federal governments directly spend more than $40 billion a year on what's typically called the war on drugs.

Virtually all of that money is spent on trying to interdict drugs as they enter the country or arresting drug users and drug sellers. Our current aim of preventing people from becoming addicted to harmful substances misses the mark.

A better focus - and one that would eliminate the violence and crime associated with black markets and reduce the social harms of addiction - would be to ask: What's the best way we can encourage people who have drug problems to seek treatment?

Baltimore has been a prime example of how successful we can be when we stop worrying about drug abuse and start worrying about drug abusers.

In 1999, Baltimore and the Maryland General Assembly began a partnership to substantially increase investment in drug treatment rather than on incarceration. The Baltimore Drug and Alcohol Treatment Outcomes Study, released in 2002 by the Open Society Institute as the largest and most rigorously conducted drug treatment outcomes study focusing on a single city, compared the experience of addicts the year before and the year after treatment.

One year after treatment, there was a 69 percent reduction in heroin use, a 48 percent reduction in cocaine use and a 38 percent reduction in imprisonment.

For my brother, our current drug control regime did little to keep him from making bad decisions. But what it did do is make it harder for him to seek treatment. This is one of the unintended consequences of today's drug policy. Not only does an addict have to admit that he has a problem, but he also has to admit that he's a criminal. This puts people in an emotional double jeopardy. It's hard enough to admit that what you're doing is self-destructive and harmful, but it's even harder to admit that your actions are punishable with prison and considered morally wrong.

It can be difficult to watch someone you love destroy himself, but the hard thing about valuing liberty is accepting the fact that people make bad decisions. It was easier, this time, to accept my brother's drug addiction because I know that he's learning from his mistakes.

Only those who know what it's like to be hooked on a drug can really appreciate what it is like to be free of it. It may have taken several bad decisions and two rounds of rehab, but today my brother knows more about personal responsibility than anyone could ever have taught him in a classroom.

If we had a drug policy that focused more on helping substance abusers and less on arresting them, perhaps he could have reached this point sooner.

Taylor W. Buley holds the Burton C. Gray memorial internship at Reason magazine and is the author of "The Fresh Politics Reader: Making Current Events and Public Affairs Relevant for Young Americans." His e-mail is tbuley@reason.com.

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