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Treating Drug Addiction, Not Punishing It

Police officers sitting on bench“Lock them away and throw away the key.” That seems to be the attitude many people have held about people who use and sell drugs, especially in the past.

But is this perspective helping society? Why should people suffer for nonviolent drug-related crimes years after they committed them? What about people convicted for carrying a small amount of drugs intended for personal use, people who weren’t hurting anyone but themselves?

A growing number are rethinking such harsh penalties for drug offenses. More and more people are helping drug-addicted people find assistance instead of punishment.

Some of this assistance comes from sources that might seem unlikely at first. For example, the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative (P.A.A.R.I.) is a coalition of police officers and other law enforcement professionals, businesspeople, private citizens, academics, philanthropists, and others. Based in Massachusetts, it is a nonprofit organization that assists other police departments across the United States.

The members of P.A.A.R.I. assist people struggling with drug abuse. They provide information to police departments and members of the community. They distribute doses of naloxone, a drug that can reverse the effects of opioid/opiate overdoses. Opioid/opiate drugs are highly addictive drugs used for relieving pain and getting high.

Perhaps most notably, if people admit that they have drug problems, members of P.A.A.R.I. help people find treatment. P.A.A.R.I. states on its website that the organization is “open to any law enforcement agency that believes in treatment over arrest and views addiction as a disease not a crime.”

For example, the Longmont, Colorado Public Safety Department operates the Angel Initiative. This program offers lists of treatment providers to people who visit the department in person or through its website and to people who visit hospitals for substance abuse. It provides medications that can treat overdoses. The Angel Initiative even helps people find work after recovery. In the words of Longmont’s Deputy Chief Jeff Satur, “Our goal is to give people access and options.”

Given that many members of P.A.A.R.I. and its partners are police officers or connected to law enforcement in some way, this perspective is surprising, yet refreshing. This viewpoint sounds very much like the opinion of former U.S. surgeon general Vivek Murthy, who called addiction “a chronic illness” and stressed that it was not “a moral failing.”

More and more people believe that addicts need compassion, not punishment. Maybe such high-profile and high-powered people with such beliefs can influence the opinions (and the lives) of others.