Want to Beat Addiction? Stop Blaming Addicts

In the war against addiction, we need a brand new approach for a chance to win.

Posted Apr 23, 2018

“There are people dying every day, everywhere. And as it stands right now, we keep blaming them for it. We’ve been fighting the War on Drugs for decades, and the only real results are the trillions of dollars spent, millions of people in jail, and more and more dead every year.”

I uttered these words out loud while giving a talk at the Cincinnati Jewish Federation‘s annual event on addiction. There were over 200 people in the audience, many of which I would come to learn had actually lost loved ones to drug addiction and overdose...mothers who’d lost their children, husbands whose wives had lost the battle and professionals who had seen dozens of people perish. I was there to offer a very different solution. I was fed up with losing this battle.

How to Keep Your Kids off Drugs—by Donald Trump

Meanwhile, President Trump, who is already known for ridiculing anyone and everything he dislikes, seems to think that a large-scale TV commercial roll-out will keep kids away from opioids. Sure, because commercials are where kids learn about drugs… His message as the commander in chief on the War on Drugs is to “scare [kids] from ending up like the people in the commercials” with “unsavory situations.” His rationale is that it will work because a similar idea had an impact on cigarette smoking. Nevermind that the tobacco efforts actually required a multifaceted approach over decades. It will be interesting to see how he manages to show addiction without further shame and blame on those who have mental illness and addiction and are seeking help (and you know how I feel about shame and its role in keeping people out of help-seeking). This President has had some wacky ideas, but this one certainly goes near the top of the list. Kids will probably make fun of these commercials, much like they did in the 80s with Mrs. Reagan’s “Just say No.“ campaign. We certainly know that they didn’t help move the needle on the actual problem. Because while it’s true that “no one ever says ‘I want to be a drug addict when I grow up,’” commercials do nothing to address the actual problems that those who struggle with addiction are grappling with. 

Capital Punishment for Drug Dealers

As far as placing blame goes, capital punishment is available to drug cases, or so the Attorney General Jeff Sessions reminds prosecutors. “I strongly encourage Federal prosecutors to use these statutes, when appropriate, to aid in our continuing fight against drug trafficking and the destruction of our nation.” More War on Drugs rhetoric. This comes before a Monday statement from President Trump, “If we don’t get tough on the drug dealers, we are wasting our time.” What seems to escape the understanding of Trump and Sessions is that drug dealers are either a) addicted themselves and are selling to support their habit or b) part of large organizations that consider them expendable and will simply replace them as soon as they’re gone.

In fact, time has been wasting for five decades. The government has been chasing the never-ending supply instead of helping to reduce those who are demanding it. That is why we are facing the problems we do. And while it’s cost trillions and occupied us for decades, it’s done nothing to change the drug scene in the U.S.

Wasting Time in Jail

And as we waste our time, others are literally wasting away as we’ve focused on jailing people instead of helping them find the help they need to beat addiction. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) noted that many people who suffer from addiction also have co-occurring mental health problems. As someone who’s been to jail, let me assure you there is little in the way of mental health support there. And the weeks, months, and years of dehumanization do lasting damage to any hope of living a non-institutionalized life for those who find themselves behind bars. And the explosion in incarceration did nothing to reduce drug use while also costing us more. Some of the research I, myself, helped with showed that treatment offers savings over incarceration, a finding also supported by numerous NIH publications. So, besides the whole helping-others-live-better-lives part, there are also savings to consider.  

More Americans are supportive of treatment instead of jail time for addiction, understanding that this is necessary to end the terrible cycle. The proper treatment allows individuals a chance to be treated as humans with dignity while also correcting their behavior. Upon exiting jail, many addicts will use again because their brains are still wired for it, they still have untreated mental health issues, and the stressors and environmental limits that are placed on them make it difficult not to resort to old coping strategies. This leaves them ripe for getting back into the addiction cycle, doing irrational things, and committing crimes.

Three Strikes in Middletown and It's Not Baseball

To make it clear how stigmatized and poorly understood addiction is, there’s always this story from Middletown, Ohio. In this town, city councilman Dan Picard suggested a new, “out-of-the-box” approach to combat the War on Drugs, which he believes would be very cost-effective. In an article entitled “One Way to End the Opioid Epidemic-Let Them Die,” he’s proposing to allow first responders to not respond to addicts, or to administer Narcan upon the third call for an overdose. He blames addicts for the city running out of money because his city’s first responders need to go on a vast number of overdose runs. Politicians are putting paramedics at the forefront of policymaker’s decision over life or death? That is the ultimate addiction blame. Just take a moment to let that notion sink in – telling opiate addicts that their lives are not worth an EMT trip or a life-saving injection – and imagine how much shame and self-loathing the knowledge that a proposal like this being made would bring upon anyone caught in it. This is essentially everything that IGNTD Recovery stands against.

No treatment available but addicts are to blame

So, we make addicts ashamed of their problems and then blame them for not being honest. And when they finally do try to get help, they often face difficulties as well. I used to run an outpatient treatment center where individuals would typically find themselves having to pay thousands of dollars per month for help. This was due to terrible insurance coverage and the high cost of proper addiction treatment. But when it comes to affordable and publicly funded help, the situation is dire. Limits on treatment centers that accept Medicaid dictate, by Federal Law, that they may only have 16 beds. This means there are few places for low-income individuals to go to seek treatment, and a long waiting list to get in once they do reach out (see a report in the Columbus Dispatch). So, who is to blame for addiction deaths again?

We need a new way to beat addiction

There will always be drug dealers or opportunities to get addicted. That will never go away no matter how strictly things are regulated or punished. The right answer is to help individuals with the underlying problems for their addiction instead of blaming or shaming them. No one ever says “I want to be a drug addict when I grow up” and, if we truly want to stop the downward spiral we’re on, we need to help those who end up there with support. Blame and shame come from a place of judgment, which has no place in a helping effort. Removing them from the process will do a lot to help those who are struggling to beat their addiction and find the help they need. This is the reason for my new book—The Abstinence Myth—and for the online education and coaching that I provide through IGNTD Recovery. People need guidance and understanding, not judgment and stigma, and the sooner we realize this, the more lives we’ll be able to save.

Copyright 2018 Adi Jaffe

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Anglin, M. D., Nosyk, B., Jaffe, A., Urada, D., & Evans, E. (2013). Offender diversion Into substance use disorder treatment: the economic impact of California’s Proposition 36. American journal of public health, 103(6), 1096-1102.

America’s New Drug Policy Landscape: Two-Thirds Favor Treatment, Not Jail, for Use of Heroin, Cocaine.