Name: Mya (Levi) McCarson-Riordan
Are We Doomed By Addiction?
January 27th 2019, was the first day I was devastated by addiction. When I was a freshman in high school, I received news that my best friend Eli had passed away. I could not believe after a year of no contact I did not get to say goodbye. Eli had been abusing anti-anxiety medications and this time it was too much.
Addiction: a compulsive, chronic, physiological or psychological need for a habit-forming substance, behavior, or activity having harmful physical, psychological, or social effects. When thinking of addiction many people think of rehab or of a drunk person stumbling over themselves and slurring their words. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg for the debilitating problem.
The American Medical Association first recognized addiction in 1956 with its labelling of alcoholism as an illness. They later declared drug dependency and alcoholism as an addiction disease1. Addiction up until recently, has never been treated as such in America. For many the promise of rehab is offered whereas for others be it a sentence to life behind bars. For such an extreme problem our country should not be ignoring it. Around 40 million Americans over the age of 12 meet the clinical criteria for addiction to alcohol, nicotine, or other drugs2. Drug usage has been trending within the last 40 years. In the 80’s it was mainly cocaine, the early 2000’s was Molly and Opioids, and from 2010 to current times it’s been nicotine, Xanax, Adderall, Percocet, Fentanyl, and other various clinical drugs used to help with anxiety, depression, or pain. The US Government and doctors play an integral part in why the drug addiction rate is so high. First, let’s examine countries who have had successful treatment for addicts.
Looking at other countries and the way they handle addiction I believe we can wholly learn something to work to execute similar remedies into our own country. Many countries took the opposite approach of America and decriminalized most if not all drugs. Taking a look at Portugal in the 1990’s, about 1% of the population had a severe addiction to Heroin3. This became the number one health issue in Portugal and this was the governmental response, “‘If addiction is a disease,’ argues Dr. Goulão ‘then why arrest sick people? The task force operated under the assumption that the addiction epidemic was medical in nature, not an issue of law and order’” (Editorial Staff 2022). The government of Portugal pronounced that those found with small amounts of drugs and no more than a 10-day supply would be sent to a panel made of a psychologist, a social worker, and a legal advisor. This panel would establish a treatment plan for these individuals. The person also had the right to refuse meeting with the panel and going through treatment without the fear of legal repercussions. Jail was not a threat4. With these new policies in place, Portugal saw the rates of illegal drug use by teenagers drop, HIV infections from shared needles dropped, and the number of people willingly seeking treatment doubled in 20095. One of the biggest contributing factors in Portugal’s success was recognizing that pursuing criminal punishment against drug addicts did nothing but ignore the true underlying issue of addiction. Some countries used these addictive drugs as part of the treatment process.
Countries such as Switzerland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, and the UK helped heroin addicts by medically giving them doses of Heroin every day to gradually wean them off the substance6. Heroin clinics are offered as part of their nation’s health programs and are funded by their governments. Switzerland is a good example of taking supportive treatments. Much like Portugal the Swiss doesn’t endlessly fight drug use and addicts. Through medical treatment and assisted heroin use Switzerland cut drug overdose deaths, HIV, and Hepatitis C infection rates significantly7. To accurately help lower drug addiction rates and treat addicted citizens Swiss government officials, members of the community, medical experts, and law enforcement came together to develop the “Four Pillars” drug policy. The four pillars are harm reduction, treatment, prevention, and repression8. This policy was made with Public health being the primary focus. The treatment also worked to legalize drug usage rooms and heroin-assisted treatment facilities which was a controversial but ultimately successful method of treatment. With these Policies and treatments in Switzerland has seen a 64% decrease in Opioid deaths over the past two decades9. The harm reduction aspect of the pillars policy values giving drug users clean spaces and equipment to lower risk of infection and bodily harm. The legalized drug usage rooms offer the user a safe environment with medical supervision10. This also protects the general public from having to witness those injecting on the street or coming into contact with used needles. These drug usage rooms are also strategically placed in locations where drug users already are. Switzerland has reported that 75% of active users are in treatment on a given day and that 95% of users have utilized treatment at some point11. For Switzerland and many other countries is available and accessible to all those in need. America could take notes from these countries and should implement similar policies.
The current way the US handles drug addiction is in the opposite direction of countries like Portugal and Switzerland. “Addiction in the United States is a disease that has been ignored and stigmatized for far too long, and it will continue to be an epidemic thanks to the failures of government, the medical profession and society at large” (Kean 2013). As of 2013 the number of those struggling with addiction almost doubled the number of those suffering from heart disease, America’s biggest killer. In the same year the US spent over triple the amount of money to help prevent and treat heart disease than on treatment for addiction prevention12. Addiction is America’s biggest avertible health problem. Part of the contribution of the medical system’s failure is educating and training those in areas of addiction. Despite it being declared a disease since 1987, it has been immensely overlooked. Additionally, treatment facilities are not adequately regulated. The majority of those providing treatment are not medical professionals, nor do they have the knowledge, training or skills to provide the full range of evidence-based treatments for addiction13. Another component of America’s demise is the method used to treat addiction, the legal drug fight.
The War on Drugs is one of the most memorable wrong turns in the battle against usage. Commencing when the US Government cracked down on drug transport in America with use of military and police force; started by Richard Nixon and based in racist policy making. There was more police and military force to primarily minority neighborhoods to “crack down on illegal drug trade and usage”. Today the War on Drugs still continues in the shadows. Around 1.5 million drug arrests are made each year. A vast majority of arrests are for cannabis offenses which still disproportionally affect minorities. This unfortunately is a coinciding issue to drug usage in America. Our focus is on addiction and how it can be helped and prevented. It has been argued by the public that drug arrest should not be the default in helping those struggling with addiction.
In order to truly see a decline in drug addiction and an increase in recovery rates, America needs serious policy reforms. Similar to other countries like Germany and Denmark, The US should start working towards the decriminalization of drugs, which has been proven to decrease drug usage. Addiction treatment should be considered as other diseases and handled by the medical system in order to have proper harm prevention, not only for suffering addicts but for public safety as well. Those studying medicine should also have the proper training and education to be able to give the adequate treatment.
While America is behind in how we handle the growing problem of addiction, I hope that with enough public outcry we can change. Addiction is a very personal topic for me. I lost two of my closest friends to drug overdoses. Another friend of mine struggled greatly with his addiction with Xanax but has been clean for several years. I could not be more proud of him. The loss of my friends and family due to drug overdose has made me extremely passionate about the issue and I believe that we can change the status. We are not doomed by addiction, but we must act. We must move forward.
“The U.S. needs to get serious about fighting addiction — unless the nation invests significant funds for treatment, improving addiction medicine education for physicians and reversing societal stigmas toward those suffering from substance use disorder, this disease, which is treatable, will unnecessarily continue to devastate millions of individuals and families in this country” (Kean 2013).
Bettinardi-Angres, Kathy. “Understanding the Disease of Addiction.” Journal of Nursing Regulation.Com, https://www.ncsbn.org/Understanding_the_Disease_of_Addiction.pdf. Accessed 17 Mar. 2022.
Hodge, Jamila. “Fifty Years Ago Today, President Nixon Declared the War on Drugs | Vera Institute.” Vera Institute of Justice, https://www.vera.org/blog/fifty-years-ago-today-president-nixon-declared-the-war-on-drugs. Accessed 17 Mar. 2022.
Kean, Janina. “Why the US Fails at Treating Addiction (Op-Ed) | Live Science.” Livescience.Com, Live Science, 27 Nov. 2013, https://www.livescience.com/41557-why-america-fails-at-addiction-treatment.html.
Knopf, Taylor. “Switzerland Couldn’t Stop Drug Users. So It Started Supporting Them. – North Carolina Health News.” North Carolina Health News, http://www.facebook.com/NCHealthNews, 21 Jan. 2019, https://www.northcarolinahealthnews.org/2019/01/21/switzerland-couldnt-stop-drug-users-so-it-started-supporting-them/.
Merriam Webster Dictionary. “Addiction Definition & Meaning – Merriam-Webster.” Dictionary by Merriam-Webster: America’s Most-Trusted Online Dictionary, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/addiction. Accessed 15 Mar. 2022.
Sederer, Lloyd. “A Blind Eye to Addiction.” Usnews.Com, usnews.com, 1 June 2015, https://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/policy-dose/2015/06/01/america-is-neglecting-its-addiction-problem.