Over and over again, in several different facilities and by several different so-called professionals, I have been told that the root of my addiction and history of substance abuse is a subconscious need to numb away certain unpleasant feelings. “What unpleasant feelings,” I ask. “You tell me,” is the inevitable, textbook reply. The proverbial seed is planted. Addicts can be very sneaky and self-serving when it comes to getting their fix and justifying their use. Add a counselor or a therapist to the equation, who basically provides not only a justification for their use, but one which paints the addict as a victim simply trying to cope with all the terrible injustices they’ve suffered in life and now you’ve removed the social stigma once associated with being an addict and redefined addiction as a “disease” which the afflicted are merely trying to self-medicate.
Addiction IS a scourge on our society and it should be stigmatized. The truth of the matter is that most people try alcohol and other drugs simply out of curiosity, boredom, peer-pressure or a hedonistic desire to be high. When those charged with treating these individuals first strategy is to identify possibly non-existent abuse or trauma, to psycho-analyze their childhoods and family situations, they have firstly made an excuse for the addicts’ use, secondly absolved the addict of any wrong-doing, and thirdly they cultivate an unnatural, improper and wildly counter-productive tolerance and empathy for addicts in our society.
If you have ever had the pleasure of being a guest at an OASAS treatment facility then you know what a cake-walk it is, especially when compared with jail or prison. Our courts are back-logged with non-violent drug offenders. Often the first course of correction is some level of substance abuse treatment. Offenders are administered a standardized assessment, known as the RIASI (Research Institute on Addictions Self-Inventory) to determine whether they have a substance abuse problem or whether whatever the incident that resulted in their arrest was isolated and therefore not indicative of an addiction problem. Most of us have some knowledge of how poorly one-size-fits-all tests and treatment programs work in the real world don’t we? The RIASI assessment is no better. The Baldwin Research Institute, Inc. obtained a copy of the RIASI assessment and administered it to nine of its employees and none of them passed. Not a single one of those tested were drug or alcohol users, yet this is the tool used by courts and corrections personnel and institutions to mandate an individual to a substance abuse treatment program. In essence, the way our society deals with drug-related offenders is to blame the criminal behavior on the addiction, and then to blame the addiction on some type of trauma or suffering. Often the effects of any trauma are blatantly exaggerated, or the trauma never even occurred and was totally fabricated by the addict as a mechanism to gain forgiveness and pity. There is no personal accountability in this formula. Addicts are dealt with much more favorably when they are perceived as victims and believe me, they know this, and will exploit it.
Not surprisingly, within these OASAS facilities it is often recommended that prescription drugs be administered to minimize the unpleasant physical effects of drug and alcohol withdrawal. For opiate users, medications such as Methadone and Suboxone are often integral components of a long-term sobriety-maintenance program, in spite of the facts that there is a high risk for the abuse of these medications, they are just as addictive as the substances they are meant to replace, and they can also produce the same withdrawal symptoms when stopped abruptly. Detoxification should always be medically supervised, but intervention should only be taken in life-threatening circumstances. Suffering through withdrawal sickness without drug relief could possibly be the best deterrent of relapse. Another benefit is that once the sickness has passed, the individual has actually kicked as opposed to being pharmaceutically detoxed with a potentially equally crippling, equally addictive replacement substance.
At a typical OASAS facility, a “client” can usually expect a comfortable semi- private or even a fully private room. Their day usually begins with a USDA approved hot breakfast which must include vegan and kosher options as well as choices for those with medically related dietary restrictions, usually followed by morning affirmations. The rest of the day is a series of “therapeutic” individual and group counseling sessions and may also include options to participate in guided meditation, yoga, nature walks, music or art therapy and acupuncture. Breaks are taken for lunch and dinner of course. It is a very structured schedule which could be a beneficial aspect were the clients not being indoctrinated all day to believe that their addictions are a disease, it’s not their fault, and their use was a subconscious, perhaps even an understandable response to the suffering they’ve endured in life. They merely need to acquire new coping mechanisms to deal with their feelings. Not everyone fits in this category of substance abuse secondary to PTSD. There is very little in these treatment programs to address the overwhelming volume of cases in which the user uses because they love being high because it feels so good.
Our system of treating drug/alcohol offenders is completely ass-backwards. It actually rewards the offender by prescribing “treatment” as opposed to “punishment.” As an addict myself, I can assure you that I have no fear of being placed in an OASAS treatment program. As a matter of fact, the last residential treatment program I attended was more like a very relaxing break from the miserable existence which I created for myself. It didn’t make me forget how good it feels to be high. I left fully knowing that I would use again. An offender, especially if their only regret is getting caught, if their punishment is to enter a 28-day treatment program, is really not going to be too dissuaded from further use by that sentence. The numbers of people in OASAS treatment programs who were mandated there by court or otherwise only as an alternative to imprisonment is staggering. These people are simply choosing the lesser of two evils and generally have little or no real desire to remain sober. Many of them return to some form of substance abuse by or before the time their legal matters are resolved. Much of the costs associated with treating uninsured, unwilling participants comes directly or indirectly out of the public coffer.
The reported rates of the success of treatment programs are typically based on clients’ completion of a treatment program, or on the results of short term follow ups, factors which scientifically prove nothing. Whether or not an individual successfully completes a treatment program is not a reliable or even useful indicator of the probability of continued sobriety, and any type of follow-ups are often based on self-reporting which assumes that the client is being truthful regarding their sobriety. The recidivism rates are far more telling and provide a much more candid and genuine assessment of the (lack of) efficacy of the current paradigm.
The mass incarceration of drug users and minor offenders is not a practical or viable solution either. First and foremost, incarceration does not even ensure the sobriety of the individual for the duration of their sentence. It does however, ensure that the individual will face an extra layer of hardship post-release, when trying to get a job, find housing, or get accepted into certain higher education or vocational programs particularly if financial aid is needed. Depending on the length of the sentence and the age at which an individual is incarcerated, they may be years behind their peers when it comes to basic life skills. If there are predisposing circumstances to relapse and other self-destructive behaviors these effects of having a criminal background certainly qualify. Collectively, the effects create conditions which increase the likelihood of an individual becoming dependent on some degree of public assistance. Unless you live in a cave, you are aware of the fact that as drug use prolongs there is a tendency for criminal activity to escalate in frequency, severity or both. The worst addicts will not hesitate to commit armed home invasions or worse. Doctors, pharmacists, and EMT’s are at an especially high risk of being victims of drug-related crimes. Elderly folks can also be susceptible if they are thought to have prescribed narcotics. This epidemic is everyone’s problem and likewise everyone’s business. The first thing we need to do is abandon the political correctness and stop enabling addicts, particularly in the criminal justice system.
We almost came close to getting it right when drug court programs were created as an alternative to imprisonment but the problem of having thousands of working age citizens in the population with conviction records remains unmitigated. A person’s status as a convicted criminal and the barrier to success that it so often becomes drives recidivism and relapse, which is great for the private prison corporations so they exercise tremendous influence and funnel millions of dollars into policymakers pockets to maintain the exploitive status quo. There is a current movement amongst some people (mostly liberal-minded) to redefine and treat the drug epidemic as a public (mental) health crisis as opposed to a criminal/law enforcement crisis . I agree with this somewhat but drugs are illegal so the best deterrent is in fact some form of treatment but it needs to be more punishing than typical rehabs. For those offenders with money, there are literally Club Med spa style facilities where they can relax and unwind with Wi-Fi, pools, tennis courts, cigarettes, fresh ground gourmet coffee and God knows what other perks. My solution is quite simple. Offenders must go to a state or federally-run facility which like prisons should never be privatized. Once any type of correctional facility becomes privatized then there is an obvious financial incentive to lobby for stricter laws and harsher sentences. These institutions need to radically deviate from the current model. Court mandated treatment centers (and others perhaps) need to be more militarily regimented and the offenders must be made to perform some type of service work that benefits the community, preferably in a manual labor capacity (with medical and physical limitations being taken into consideration of course). It must be as unpleasant as possible without being inhumane. Upon successful completion of a program, and after a pre-determined period of probation style supervision the offenders should be eligible to have their records expunged. They should not have the consequences of having to disclose their conviction on a job application, or have their voting rights revoked or infringed upon or be discriminated in any other way due to their past offenses. When you laden the path to successful reintegration with obstacles such as unemployment, homelessness and discrimination you essentially set them on the path to utter failure and recidivism.
“Do you really want a meth-head or a drunk in charge of administering your meds and wiping your ass?”
That being said however, the first strategy should be to prevent substance abuse to begin with through education, employment opportunities, vocational training and quite frankly, shame. Historically, and recently much more blatantly, popular culture has glamorized, popularized, romanticized and normalized illicit drugs and alcohol. As a society we need to reattach the stigma we once associated with drugs and alcohol. We need people to view alcoholism and drug use as extremely undesirable habits while at the same time, giving those who do succumb at least one chance to earn the opportunity to scrub themselves clean. It must be earned by doing unpleasant work and living uncomfortably but also receiving counseling on subjects such as parenting skills, educational or vocational pursuits, job seeking and whatever other life skills they might require to set them on a less precarious path to success and maintained sobriety. What will the state of our union be in 20 or so years when our population is comprised of millions of unemployed, poverty-stricken, government dependent ex-offenders who contribute little or nothing to society? What will it be like with millions of tweakers and dopers doing their jobs wasted, jobs like nurse, police officer, teacher, banker, bus driver or elder care provider? Do you really want a meth-head or a drunk in charge of administering your meds or wiping your ass? Like smoking cigarettes and watching kiddie porn, drug and alcohol use has to be declared scumbag-ish by high society, by celebrities/people with strong influence especially on youths and what is considered “cool,” and what is considered foul and unattractive, and by all other so-called respectable people. It needs to become taboo again. Addiction should be regarded more as a weakness, as derelict, self-serving behavior which demonstrates little regard for physical and mental hygiene, little regard for others, as a self-induced affliction caused by poor decision making. This perception would hopefully avert many young people from ever trying drugs or alcohol. Those who do experiment despite the stigma, and are convicted of a drug or alcohol related offense however, should not actually literally be shunned by society for the remainder of their lives. They cannot be coddled and absolved of the responsibility for their choices either though. They must be dealt with firmly in a manner which will be so unpleasant that most will not risk recidivism. With that in mind though, the key to successful rehabilitation and reintegration will be the effectively merciful chance to have their convictions expunged; the chance to start over with a clean slate. That single, virtually cost-free incentive will be a complete game changer for a substantial portion of offenders. In an already anorexic job market, not being passed over because of a drug conviction could for many, be the difference between a gainfully-employed productive future, or one plagued by poverty and feelings of hopelessness-catalysts for relapse and further criminal behavior.
The savings realized as a result of fewer and shorter incarcerations and a reduction of subsequent post-release government dependency should be used in efforts to identify and prosecute the career drug distributors. The real life kingpins are usually not addicts themselves and they do deserve the harshest prison sentences. The doctors who operate pill-mill style pain management clinics need to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and made examples out of as well. These white collar professionals are no less vile than their illicit drug dealing counterparts. They are all profiting by poisoning entire communities of people, many of whom once introduced to drugs will forever suffer with addiction and the related difficulties and hardships thereof. They ruin lives. They don’t care about the grieving mother whose child suffered a fatal overdose. They do not worry about elderly people being assaulted in armed home invasions by crazed crystal meth or heroin addicts. They feel no responsibility for the young girl whose addiction is so powerful that she will sell her body for her next fix.
Those whose offenses qualify them for treatment as opposed to jail are typically much more a danger to themselves alone rather than anyone else and should therefore be dealt with differently.
I fully believe that a boot camp style sentence which includes manual labor in the form of community services, along with proper counseling and post-release supervision and assistance in career planning and other life skills coupled with the opportunity to expunge a conviction would be much more effective in deterring would-be repeat offenders. Because of the profit potential of mass incarceration, the system as it stands was designed to maximize recidivism. The private prison management corporations will of course spend millions and millions on lobbying to enact new laws and longer sentences. The law enforcement and corrections employees’ unions, even before privatization has spent fortunes lobbying for the same things to ensure a continued and increased demand for officers. Unless the profit factor is removed from the equation, there will always be some very rich and powerful people who will spend money to make even more by locking people up. It would be detrimental to their bottom line to provide inmates with any services or programs which might decrease recidivism rates. In other words, like every other for-profit business, private prison corporations want to maximize customer retention! Recidivism is akin to repeat customers, plain and simple. Also like every other business, they understand it can be worthwhile to invest money in attracting new customers. Instead of ad campaigns though, they influence judges, prosecutors and politicians to pass more and more complicated laws and incarcerate more people for lengthier periods.
If we de-incentivize mass incarceration, stop being soft on addicts, stop treating them as helpless victims, hold them accountable for their choices and their recovery but still give low level offenders an opportunity to be spared from the lifelong repercussions of a criminal conviction, and provide effective post-release supportive services for those who need it, we would simultaneously reduce substance abuse, generational poverty (which is exacerbated by parental incarceration), and government dependency. The fact that of all industrialized nations, we have the highest rate of incarceration should bring us all shame. It is proof that the privatization experiment is a huge failure, has devastating social consequences and does nothing but line the pockets of corrupt politicians, judges and corporate wardens along with their investors, and results in far-reaching, intergenerational human collateral damage. America’s ever-worsening drug problem a testament to the complete and utter failure of our existing treatment model and has made it painfully obvious that incarcerating millions of non-violent drug offenders does exponentially more harm than good. If the reforms I speak of were actually implemented then we would watch the slums of concentrated poverty we created actually begin to shrink. By no longer enabling addicts and radically reducing our incarceration rates and thusly the number of individuals stymied by a criminal past, we would eventually reap all kinds of priceless benefits. Substance abuse and incarceration directly contribute to broken families, unemployment, educational deficiencies, poverty, economic inequality, increased chronic illnesses, decreased life expectancies, the spread of communicable disease, and a host of other plagues. We can’t prolong action any longer because our misguided, failing policies, even if abandoned today, already caused the damaging conditions that will affect so many of today’s children and youths who are right now growing up with addicted or imprisoned parents. It will take generations to fix this. It’s long overdue for Americans to make fixing America our highest priority or within twenty years from now we will be a nation whose majority is either addicted, imprisoned, impoverished or some combination thereof, and that’s a long way from where we came.