by Alan Young, NASW-CA Membership Intern
Drug decriminalization remains a controversial topic in the United States, even as more states move towards decriminalizing certain drugs. Simply put, what is meant by drug decriminalization is the removal of criminal penalties for drug law violations. This is a subject that is near and dear to me for several reasons. First, I am a recovering substance abuser with 13 years of sobriety. Second, I have worked in substance abuse recovery for the last six years. Finally, I have seen firsthand the effects that carrying around a drug charge has on the ultimate outcome and long-term sobriety of the individuals affected.
The last few years have seen major changes in how individual states are handling the nations changing attitudes of drugs, particularly marijuana. However, we are still feeling the effects of individuals who have been imprisoned rather than treated. Prison is not set up to help those with addictions, yet our society sees it as a viable option. The issue of drug decriminalization is an issue of how we view addiction in society, and the way in which we view it socially dictates how we enforce it legally. Here are some steps that we can take as social workers to help toward the ultimate goal of drug decriminalization.
In order to create an effective education and political action campaign, it is crucial that we understand the public view of substance abuse and addiction, those it affects, and what the public know about it. Since addiction crosses generational, racial, and class lines, it is imperative to get as broad a sample as possible. This survey will hopefully assess these areas. It is also important to gain insight into whatever fears the public might have about addiction. Understanding the fears can help identify areas where education is also necessary. Finally, the survey can ask the public what their impression is of decriminalizing drugs. Often times, decriminalization is thought to be the same as legalization, so identifying which words are being miscommunicated is imperative to further education.
One of the biggest hurdles we face in regards to substance abuse is that the public in this country still thinks of it as a moral issue rather than a medical issue. Simply put, addiction is a disease, with science and research to back it up. By making the information more accessible for the public, it will help to destigmatize addiction. This can be accomplished by creating a practical educational program designed for schools, workplaces, and even churches. The creation of a curriculum outlining the effects of drugs on the body, the changes that happen in the brain during addiction, but most importantly where one can find resources to seek treatment would help to educate the public on this issue rather than scare them. Leaders in the community could serve as educators and instructors in this curriculum, or they could ask for an instructor to come in and teach. The benefits of destigmatizing addiction would be to increase treatment seekers rather than marginalizing them, which will lead to earlier intervention, cutting down on the rates of addiction. It would also serve to create a sense of helping in the community rather than ostracization. Hopefully this will lead to less draconian sentencing for drug offenders.
Creation of a political action group of former inmates for the reform of drug policy
Lawmakers have continually pushed policies that have punished substance abuse rather than treat it. In a sense, its equivalent to sweeping dust under a rug: it might appear clean on the surface, but underneath a growing issue is building. It is for this reason that it is necessary for those affected by these policies to make themselves known. Creation of a political action group of former inmates would help to spread awareness to those directly responsible for the laws and policies that incarcerated them. It would have several positive outcomes. The first would be giving the lawmakers direct insight into the effects of draconian drug laws. Discussing the effectiveness of treatment rather than imprisonment, the effects of job searching with a criminal drug charge, and the ongoing marginalization of addicts are but a few of the vast topics that this group could enlighten lawmakers and the public on. The second would be the mobilization of a marginalized group into political action. It might encourage positive participation in society, helping to reduce hopelessness and recidivism. It would benefit not only the public in terms of policy and action, but also those who were directly affected by this policy. Additionally, it might start to serve as the first step in destigmatizing addiction.
You can reach Alan at AYoung.email@example.com.