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Does arresting substance abusers work? It’s complicated | READER COMMENTARY

In this April 26, 2018, file photo, a likely substance abuser lies on the sidewalk beside a recyclable trash bin in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Ben Margot, File)
In this April 26, 2018, file photo, a likely substance abuser lies on the sidewalk beside a recyclable trash bin in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Ben Margot, File) (Ben Margot/AP)

There have been a number of editorials and letters in The Baltimore Sun on the benefits versus detriments of arresting people for substance abuse (”Arrest is not the answer to helping people with drug addictions,” Nov. 17). However, in my experience, the answers to this issue are more complex.

For 45 years, I’ve provided mental health and substance abuse services in outpatient, inpatient and prison settings. I’m certain that many of my provider colleagues (who, I believe, entered the field primarily to help and not profit from substance abusers) have shared my experiences and have had numerous individuals’ credit being arrested for their sobriety or for saving their lives. Those individuals have had a real and significant fear of what life would be like without their “best friend” — drugs or alcohol. Nothing else worked (and there were plenty of efforts) until their arrest. Providers who work directly with these individuals are the ones (besides the abusers themselves) who best understand the “pathological hold” that drugs and alcohol will have on people.

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Over the years, I have worked with countless individuals who committed crimes under the influence of drugs or alcohol that they otherwise wouldn’t have. They oftentimes don’t clearly remember who they seriously threatened, sexually accosted, what they stole, broke or where they trespassed. In some of these cases, when individuals were killed or badly injured, that was not the intent of the substance abusing perpetrator. There are also over 10,000 driving under the influence-related deaths in our country every year involving alcohol and more that involve other drugs.

Additionally, U.S. News and World Report has cited studies showing that in states where marijuana has been legalized, there is still a significant illegal marijuana trade. Legalization, therefore, may not stop the “drug wars” or control how drugs are used and abused. This doesn’t mean that individuals caught for the first time with a minimal amount of a drug in their possession with no previous infractions should have a criminal record for the rest of their lives. Often, there were many other factors that led to their possession and arrest. In my opinion, that kind of case should be judged on its own unique factors. From my clinical experience, most of those individuals deserve a second chance.

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Providers, I believe, would welcome substance abusers requesting help without the motivator of a criminal consequence. However, that doesn’t seem to be the majority of cases that I have seen in 45 years. It is my opinion that based on the complexity of addiction, a policy of whether or not we should arrest abusers requires more research, which should include significant input from providers and recovering abusers.

Dr. Larry Fishel, Owings Mills

The writer is a member of the Coalition to Combat Underage Drinking.

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