Addiction Medical Not Criminal + The 2016 Presidential Race

by Joshua Hoe

Joshua Hoe eating Curry
Eating Curry!

I almost fell off my seat last night when I heard the following from Bernie Sanders during last nights Democratic Candidate debate:

He said that Addiction is a “disease not a criminal activity”

Hearing a Presidential candidate suggest that addiction is medical not criminal is pretty amazing.

And it is not just Bernie, hard-core former Federal prosecutor Chris Christie has said (talking about a funeral of a friend who died from an overdose):

“And as I sat there as the governor of New Jersey at his funeral and looked across the pew at his three daughters sobbing because their dad is gone, there but for the grace of God go I. It can happen to anyone. We need to start treating people in this country, not jailing them. We need to give them the tools they need to recover, because every life is precious,”

All of the Democratic candidates and most of the GOP candidates have a similar stance.

I pray that this means that change is finally afoot.

I pray that something finally changes.

But, I am not just going to sit back and pray.

It is time for all of us addicts, former addicts, and addiction and recovery experts to lobby for candidates who are for reform.

There is a difference between keeping your program anonymous, keeping your program anonymous, and participating in the political process.

I am certainly not suggesting that everyone run out and proclaim their addiction and wave it like a flag.

I am suggesting that all of us have more than a rooting outcome in having a political system that cares about addiction. We each have a vote in that process.

The Tough Approach to Drugs and Addicts

Sometime during the 1980’s it became impossible to speak the truth about addiction, the drug war, or crime in general.

If you did not have something “tough” to say, you were better off saying nothing at all.

For the last thirty or so years, anything you do to help addicts was considered “enabling.”

All laws had to be tougher and tougher on addicts and addiction related crimes.

And all discourse about addiction had to start and end with something brutally “fair.”

At the same time, the science almost always showed exactly the opposite.

As near as I can tell, the drug war has prevented virtually no drug consumption, but it has caused incredible pain and suffering throughout communities all over this country.

As near as I can tell, incarceration of addicts has done very little to stem the tide of addiction, but it has had incredible costs for people suffering from addiction all over this country (and their families and their communities).

“Medical Not Criminal” And The Haters

Too often, when we talk about addiction as a disease, this is used to suggest that addicts are trying to absolve themselves of responsibility for bad deeds they have committed while under the influence (of substances or behaviors).

I myself do not fully endorse the disease model, but I do believe addiction is a medical and social problem that often requires medical intervention. I find the disease model preferable to the ‘moral failing’ model (which seems wholly inappropriate).

To suggest that addiction is a medical problem only suggests that your addiction is not a sign of a flawed and broken character but rather the result of a set of circumstances that are common and predictable and based in brain chemistry.

I am morally responsible for the things I do while acting out my addiction, but I am not addicted because I am a morally broken human being.

Nuance doesn’t always play in national politics, but this is a very important subtle difference. It makes all the difference in the world to how addiction is treated by the government, by jails, and by prisons throughout this country.

When I was in prison, I would say that well over 50% of the people I met suffered from some form of addictive problem.

The Battle For Sanity is Far From Over

It was just a few months ago that Ohio voted against legalizing marijuana.

My interest in legalization has nothing to do with making it more available, I don’t smoke it.

But, I do want it to be decriminalized, it does nobody any good to send a small percentage of users and dealers to prison every year while a large percentage of the rest of the country smokes up with no consequences.

The arguments against the initiative were predictably fear based, and addiction based.

You know, if you legalize pot you will have neighborhoods full of pot heads all around you.


News flash people, everyone who wants to smoke marijuana smokes it now. The only question is if marijuana remains criminalized or if the law begins to follow a more logical path.

I have seen yards full of addicts in prison, I have seen the kind of “addiction services” that jails and prisons provide.

I have seen first hand how jail and prison ruins peoples lives, leaves them broke, piles them with debt, and makes it virtually impossible to lead a productive and integrated life (where they can have a meaningful job).

The result is often a swan dive back into addiction and prison or jail.

But my larger point is that addicts and experts need to do a much better job of pushing the science, defending legal changes, and opposing the “tough on addicts” legal agendas.

While I am 100% for helping people quit and helping them find recovery, I am also 100% behind legal reforms designed to treat addiction (all addiction) as a medical rather than legal problem.

We need to support the candidates that support decriminalization and medical approaches to addiction.

Taking An Active Stand

Unless we reeducate the public and counter thirty years of bad information on addiction, we will keep seeing addicts shamed and abused for being addicted.

As always, my point is NOT that they should be absolved of crimes that they commit while addicted – rather, they should ONLY be charged for the crimes that they commit, not the drugs, alcohol, or addictive behaviors.

If addicts have committed criminal acts, they should have access to REAL scientifically vetted treatment options.

Currently, when treatment options exist in jails and prisons they are either very loose versions of 12 step groups (fine) or political treatment systems that focus almost entirely on addiction as a moral failing.

I suggest taking an active stance of support including (but not limited to):

1) Making sure the candidates you support on the Local, State, and Federal level fully believe addiction is a medical and not a criminal issue – and support legal reforms in this area.

2) Continuing to push for these candidates to push for active reform. We have the power to send messages to candidates daily on their websites, on their social media pages, and in the comment sections of the papers that cover them. We have to be an active and informed citizenry if we want true reforms.

3) Counter non-scientific misinformation every time you see it. If you read a story that romanticizes get tough or criminal solutions, comment. Attach links to the science that debunks whatever the particular caveman approach to addiction is being pushed. Be active on your social media and/or any other channels you have. You don’t have to be snarky or rude, just post counter-information when appropriate.

4) Counter dodges like only reforming sentencing for non-violent offenders etc. The “violence” tag is applied pretty liberally, even to people who have never done anything we would consider violent. In addition, the thing that should be decriminalized is the drugs, alcohol, or addictive behaviors, crimes are still crimes. Many times, these tags are used to make minor reforms look much more significant than they are.

At the end of the day, every addict needs good therapy, scientifically supported treatment, and a good program of recovery.

As Bernie said last night, it is a medical and not a criminal problem!

“Addiction is Medical not Criminal” – repeat that every time you have the chance.

It is very exciting to see momentum at the top for real changes, but we cannot let this momentum dissipate when we could see real changes.

We may be addicts, but so are many other millions of people across this country, we are a massive (shamed) silent recovered minority that needs to start speaking up for ourselves in defense of our brothers and sisters.

We have to provide the momentum for political change, it is the only way a Democracy can truly function.

What do you think we should do to help ensure meaningful legal reforms? Were you encouraged by the debates? Let me know what you think, leave a comment!


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