Note to Jeff Sessions: Criminalizing addiction is like criminalizing cancer
© Greg Nash

Maximum penalties and stricter sentencing. Tougher crackdowns and more arrests. 

In spite of overwhelming evidence that criminalizing drug use is not an effective way of reducing crime rates, drug overdoses, or the social issues associated with drug addiction, Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat House passes concealed carry gun bill Rosenstein to testify before House Judiciary Committee next week MORE moved Friday to roll America’s drug policy back at least a decade. Progress? 

Not really. 

The changes, which eradicate decades of advocacy, policy change, and social justice work, are designed to condemn struggling drug addicts while denying them the help and treatment they need to get well. 

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Although addiction is often treated as a mysterious illness, it is not a complex disease. People with addiction, or substance use disorder, are a high risk population. Roughly 30,000 people die of opioid overdoses every year, at a rate of at least one death every 15 minutes.

 

Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy published a groundbreaking report on addiction last year which showed that America is in the midst of a public health crisis related to drugs and alcohol. The report indicated that addiction, as a chronic brain illness, is highly treatable – but that fewer than 10 percent of people with substance problems actually seek treatment. 

Addiction affects a broad cross section of Americans, but Sessions prefers to focus on the population that’s the most likely to serve time in private, for-profit prisons. There’s no money in helping people attain recovery, but plenty to be made by keeping us behind bars.

Many people with addiction end up incarcerated, or serving disproportionately harsh sentences for possession of a substance they can’t stop using. 

Once released from jail, they find it more difficult to secure work, buy a home or start a family. . Add other social factors, like class income, and race, and addiction can be a lethal trap that many people never escape from. 

Can’t afford treatment without subsidized healthcare? Too bad. 

Can’t access social assistance programs to maintain abstinence from lethal substances like heroin or prescription pills? Too bad. 

Can’t get a life saving anti-overdose Naloxone shot without a prescription? Too bad. 

Can’t get a clean needle without putting your name in a criminal database? Too bad. 

People with addiction are not criminals – and criminalizing addiction is about as useful as criminalizing breast cancer. It merely raises the stakes and threatens the most vulnerable members of our community.

Sessions, criminal justice policies nearly cost him the appointment to Attorney General, is clearly targeting people with addiction under the banner of “fighting crime.” 

Yet, people who struggle with this chronic brain illness are not criminals – and the deadly opioid crisis that is tearing America’s families and communities apart has nothing to do with gang activity. 

It is a public health crisis, not a crime wave. 

It’s a problem that Sessions needs to realize he can’t arrest his way out of.

The decision to take drug policy back to the “Just Say No” campaign of the 1980s and 1990s is yet another action that shows that the Trump administration is not really interested in ending the opioid crisis.

Although the President made many grandiose campaign promises about helping Americans who need treatment and care for their health issue, every action taken by his Cabinet has been harsh, regressive, and harmful.

From declaring addiction to be a preexisting condition, to stripping needed funding from Medicare for treatment, to denying funding to rural health clinics that serve people in need, to calling for stricter punishments, the Trump administration has done all it can to dehumanize, marginalize, and oppress people who struggle with addiction. 

Sessions’ indiscriminate and ideologically motivated action is just par for the course.

Who suffers?

Our families. Our communities. Our parents, children, friends, and coworkers. Our neighbors.

Addiction doesn’t discriminate. It is everywhere in our society, from the top 1 percent to the poorest people among us.

Addiction affects people of all races, creeds, origins, ethnicities, faiths, genders, and income levels. That means that our solution can’t discriminate, either. We need to treat this crisis like what it is: A public health crisis, an epidemic. 

This is not about crime and never has been. 

By calling for harsher punishments on an already vulnerable population, Sessions is taking us back to the Dark Ages.

We need progress, and we need it now – before more lives are lost to a system that is ignorant of what addiction really is.

Ryan Hampton is a nationally recognized recovery advocate and a person in recovery from heroin addiction. He lives in Los Angeles. 


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