“We … say for first time non-violent drug offenders, no more prison. They are going to mandatory inpatient drug treatment because this is a disease, and the war on drugs has been a failure. . . . And what we need is a country and a President who will stand up and say this is a disease and we need to fix it.”
--Chris Christie, Monday, August 3, 2015
Taking a public health approach to the drug problem is exactly the right response and it requires a genuine strategy.
Governor Christie is right to say that “first time non-violent drug offenders” don’t belong in prison. Thankfully, they aren’t sent to prison in America today. Criminal justice statistics show that low-level drug users simply aren’t incarcerated for using drugs, either in state or federal prison. New Jersey is not alone.
In reality, those in prison for drug offenses are overwhelmingly drug dealers; they are traffickers selling drugs—large amounts—and most often with long criminal careers. It is the right public policy for these people to be in prison, because of the harm that they cause to others. They create victims, and society is right to stop them.
So, Christie has it right: prison for drug dealers, but those who have the behavioral disease of drug use need to get "drug treatment, rather than prison." And getting many people the treatment they need is best accomplished by enlisting law enforcement in referring them to a treatment program. Sanctioned, court supervised treatment is by far the most successful path for helping some of our most addicted citizens. If you eliminate the role of law enforcement by making drugs legal, you’re removing the incentive for recovery, and the main route by which those who have the disease get the help that they need.
Governor Christie also knows that we need a strong stance regarding prevention, to stop the spread of the disease. That’s another reason why it’s exactly the wrong thing to legalize drugs like marijuana. Legal, readily accessible drugs undermine prevention messages, undermine treatment and recovery, and actually increase the risk that young people will be trapped by addiction.
In addition, we have to interrupt the supply of these deadly substances. We have to use law enforcement and interdiction and border security to stop the flow of these drugs to our communities, and to stop the criminal gangs that traffic them.
There has to be a strategic chain of responses to the disease of addiction. It begins with reducing the supply and availability of the substances that cause the addiction in the first place. Then we need to follow that with strong prevention messages to reduce the demand for the drugs, and the number of young people caught in this trap. Finally, we need to have real treatment and recovery for those already trapped, who don’t need more, and more readily available, drugs when they do get free.
We can see the impact of drug supply in two cases. When the supply of cocaine from Colombia was dramatically reduced (beginning in 2006, production heading for U.S communities dropped by 75 percent), the demand for the drug on U.S. streets declined by 50 percent. Lives were saved, more people went into treatment, and prevention efforts among youth gained strength. We gained a major public health victory by these combined actions.
Conversely, all of our best demand reduction efforts, offering treatment and prevention and even overdose intervention, have not been enough to reverse the current, rising heroin epidemic in the U.S. and the spiraling overdose death rate afflicting nearly every major city.
That’s because we failed to prevent the massive increase in supply of heroin flooding our streets. Today, heroin is more potent and cheaper than ever, and more readily available than it has ever been in the U.S. We broke the first link in the chain of essential responses: reduce the flow of drugs into our lives, and push back against the criminals who traffic the drug across our borders and distribute it through gangs found in every major city.
But allowing this wave of cheap, potent heroin to overwhelm us, we are losing the battle for treatment and prevention. A true public health response requires that we not only strengthen prevention and treatment, but cut off the source of the deadly disease. That’s the only public health strategy that works.