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he war on drugs and treating addiction

Reckoning with the addict and the US “War on Drugs”

In 2015, nearly 1.25 million people in the United States were arrested for the simple possession of drugs. Moreover, America’s “War on Drugs” has led to unprecedented violence and instability in Mexico and other drug-producing nations. Yet in spite of billions of dollars spent and thousands of lives lost, drug abuse has not decreased.

The stigma of the addict has remained tried-and-true for decades, even centuries, and it affects every proposed solution to eliminating drug abuse and the drug trade, from treatment models to aggressive drug enforcement measures. With the solidification of the punitive drug control system in the 1970s and 1980s, years of stigmatizing individuals’ dependencies to substances like cocaine, derivatives of the poppy plant, and alcohol reached its logical conclusion: the addict was cast as a criminal. But if the stigma of the addict were removed altogether, many fear that drug addiction would increase to the overall detriment of society.

With the drug war concept growing increasingly unpopular, treatment policies have been touted as the next frontier in reducing drug abuse and crippling the drug trade. However, the success of treatment policies is more than simply discarding the “War on Drugs”. It’s reckoning with the addict. If the treatment approach is to achieve widespread success, we must minimize our stigma of the addict in conjunction with creating more viable rehabilitative options that can successfully displace punitive drug control measures.

A look at how American society has stigmatized the addict over the last 100 years reveals how much work remains to be done.

Drug addicts have gone to great lengthsmonetarily, physically, emotionally, etc.to cure themselves of myriad addictions. In the 1930s, an experimental treatment known as the “serum cure” used heat plasters to raise blisters on the addict’s skin. Upon withdrawing the serum from the blisters, the administers of the treatment then re-injected the serum directly into the addict’s muscles multiple times over the course of the week that followed. “Remarkable results” were claimed from the serum cure.

Other “miracle cures” included horse blood injections, the infamous Keeley Cure, which introduced a substance into the body that allegedly contained gold, and placing the excrement of animals into substances like alcohol to induce aversion to them.

The question now is not whether we can fund more treatment programs to reduce drug addiction and move past the “War on Drugs,” but whether or not we discard the stigma of the addict, which undergirds any solution to drug abuse in our society.

Those who did not turn to vogue, experimental treatments often resorted to substituting one substance addiction for another: cocaine for morphine or morphine for alcohol. It all depended upon which substance society deemed the more undesirable at the time.

At one point, the stigmatization of the addict proved so intense that some resorted to sterilization, especially in the age of eugenics. Addicts, as it went, did not have the right to pass on their undesirable addictions to their offspring or to society at large.

While the personal cost of such remedies was high for the addict, it was by no means as costly as enduring the sense of shame that came with being an addict in US society.

While today’s addict is more likely to undergo a stay in a treatment facility, a prison, or on the street rather than an unusual, experimental cure, the stigma of the addict remains as sharp as ever, so much so that it prevents treatment resources from being made available to a greater portion of the population. It discourages addicts from seeking the help they need.

According to the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health, only 14% of people struggling with drug dependency seek treatment. Treatment implies accepting the status as addict in the path to recovery, a step that for some is too gruesome to endure.

Contrary to popular belief, many of the architects of the US “War on Drugs” were politicians in favor of treatment approaches to drug abuse. The US anti-drug campaign was not initially intended to be a “war” per se, but instead an incredible mobilization of US resources to target widespread drug use in the 1960s and 1970s, a period wracked by civil unrest and opposition to authority figures.

But ultimately the desire to minimize crime overtook an increased focus on treatment. Mistakenly, drug control came to be associated with increasing numbers of non-white, lower class drug addictsalready undesirables. Soon the larger umbrella of crime prevention subsumed drug addicts, many who might have been successfully rehabilitated if the conditions proved more favorable. Tackling addiction then grew increasingly intertwined with making US cities and towns safer.

In time, leaders would mobilize supply control measures domestically and abroad, and soon an entire bureaucracy formed around criminalized drug control where the addict was the criminal. Those who advocated genuine treatment options from the 1970s onward fought a losing battle. This made sense given longer traditions of stigmatizing addicts and the intense pressures addicts faced to overcome their dependencies.

The question now is not whether we can fund more treatment programs to reduce drug addiction and move past the “War on Drugs,” but whether or not we discard the stigma of the addict, which undergirds any solution to drug abuse in our society. With drug control in the United States an inherently racialized, class-based phenomenon, it’s easier to stigmatize and blame than it is to rehabilitate.

While increasingly sophisticated treatment options and facilities have developed over time, our society is not yet in a position where we embrace our addicts, especially those of lower classes, races, and ethnicities. Although blacks and Latinos use and sell drugs at similar or lower rates to whites, they comprise nearly 60% of those being held for drug offenses at state prisons. “Nothing has contributed more to the systematic mass incarceration of people of color in the United States than the War on Drugs,” according to Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow.

As it stands, drug control fluctuates between two extremes: “addiction as crime” versus “addiction as disease.” For most of our recent history, we have subscribed to the former position. Treatment programs on a mass scale should be carefully constructed so that they promote the recuperating addict and his or her recovery post-addiction in a less stigmatizing environment. We must give addicts a second chance to be full citizens in our society capable of making a fresh start.

Perhaps the first step involves supporting campaigns that popularize the notion of seeing addiction as a disease through events and social media, such as National Recovery Month each September. Supporters of this cause offer support to addicts and their families and celebrate recovery. Could such awareness, if it grows powerful enough, then serve to inspire more aggressive political action?

In whatever direction we proceed, we must find a way to reckon with the stigma of the addict, an effort that has to be more powerful than the inclination to see the addict as a criminal.

Featured image credit: “Chainlink” by Unsplash. Public Domain via Pixabay

Recent Comments

  1. Doug Teague

    Nice article and I agree with de-stigmatizing the addict. The addict is literally the end-user in a long logistical chain of people distributing, and more often than not, not using the drugs they are distributing, therefore, not an addict. I would like to see more resources go towards rehab for addicts vice prison but prison is still where the distributors belong. Continue using resources to block the logistical supply chain and those caught in it, pay their price in prison.

  2. Michael Long

    Excellent article. I agree removing the stigma on users is important. The decriminalization of drugs appears to have done wonders for Portugal, but this was also paired with universal access to free rehabilitation. Wasting policing resources on users serves no point, when they could be dedicated to interrupting the supply chain. Everyone in America wants to blame race for everything, however, our country has a huge disparity in economic realities and many people see selling drugs as the only way out of the poverty cycle. Furthermore, we have a deep ethical issues. Opioids prescribed by physicians are killing more people than street drugs.

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