The woman in stripes stood in front of me, shaking and sweaty. In a rush, she told me she was coming off a long-term meth addiction. She asked if there was any way I could help her. I told her the same thing I tell all detoxing drug users - ask a medic for some pain relievers, but beyond that, I can’t help you.

Since September, I have worked at the Washington County Jail in their medical facilities passing out medication to the inmates. On a daily basis, I talk to individuals detoxing from various substances, and my inability to provide more than a low-grade painkiller is frequently a source of frustration.

Across the board, detention centers often come under fire for their methods in treating addictions, and while it is in no way a perfect system, the relationship between drug addiction and the jail system is often much more complicated than it may seem. It is easy to immediately place blame on the medial providers, but the problem extends much deeper than that.

In my experience at the Washington County, the standard treatment for detoxing patients is monitoring their condition and administering vitamin supplements. We also often give out over the counter painkillers. If a patient is clearly in distress, they are seen by a medic, and in the vast majority of cases, the symptoms run their course in a few days. However, there is ample evidence suggesting that medicated detox, where there are specific drugs administered to combat withdrawals, is more effective long-term. Because of this many are, with good reason, unimpressed by the standard treatment.

The other side to this is that the medical facilities in detention centers often do not have the personnel resources to provide the necessary oversight for medicated detox. Additionally, the medications are not cheap. For some facilities, it may come down to a choice between providing comprehensive psychiatric care or medicated detox.

Moreover, the legal approach to drug addiction in the U.S. leads to ever-increasing numbers of addicts behind bars, making it even harder for medical facilities to cope with the influx of detox patients. This is the root of the problem, and it is bad for everyone involved.

The harsh punishment of drug addicts has been standard practice in the U. S., but it is harmful to taxpayers and, more importantly, harmful to the users. Imprisoned addicts are removed from optimal recovery  treatment. While there are 12 step programs and similar resources available, they will only go so far without more comprehensive intervention in both short and long term recovery. This decreases their likelihood of remaining sober upon release.

Although this approach has long been accepted in our nation, other countries have switched tactics with some promising results. Chief among these is Portugal, which decriminalized the use of any and all drugs in 2001. While dealing drugs or possessing more than a 10 day supply is still illegal, Portuguese prisons saw a drop of 44% to 24% in incarcerated addicts. Additionally, there have been drastic decreases in deaths from overdoses and cases of HIV contracted as a result of injecting with dirty needles.

This change does not come without controversy, however. For example, one staple of Portugal’s approach is allowing outreach teams to check in on drug users and provide them with supplies such as clean needles and foil. On a similar note, it allows for the existence of safe injection sites with medics available to prevent overdoses. Many are legitimately concerned that the government is essentially enabling further drug use, but the statistics speak for themselves.

Not only are overdoses and cases of HIV down, the rate of individuals actively seeking treatment for addiction is up by 60 percent. The core belief at work in this policy change is that nobody wants to be an addict. Rather, drug abuse spirals quickly out of control, and by the time a user realizes their dependance, it is often too late.

Criminalizing drug use places an unfair burden on the medical facilities in prisons and detention centers that are often short on resources while also depriving addicts of the best treatment for their addiction. This can create a vicious cycle of release and subsequent imprisonment that makes recovery much more difficult than it needs to be. It is time to consider reframing our approach. If addicts are viewed not as criminals, but as people in need of help, recovery and rehabilitation are suddenly much more achievable.


Emma Richardson is the opinion editor of the Arkansas Traveler. Emma worked as an opinion writer from 2018-2019.

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