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Punishing Drub Abuse Relapses Doesn’t Improve Outcomes

One of the many things hindering drug abuse treatment is that drug addiction isn’t considered just an involuntary mental condition, akin to a disease, but also a crime. If the police detect illicit drug use, the drug abuser can go to jail or to involuntary drug addiction therapy in lieu of jail time. If they start using again—a relapse — often they can then be sentenced to the original jail time in addition to the time spent in rehab.

With other health problems—lung disease, a heart condition, or diabetes—prison isn’t considered a reasonable option. The authorities might encourage a person with such a condition to seek treatment—might help them get it if they can’t afford it or don’t have insurance — but not threaten incarceration. If, after accepting help, these people have a relapse, they aren’t sent to jail either.

Clearly, our society is still undecided as to whether it considers drug addiction a disease or a freely made choice, possibly by someone of weak or corrupt character. Most experts, including The National Institute on Drug Abuse and the American Psychiatric Association, think it’s largely a disease. Many politicians think it’s a choice.

There are crimes associated with drug use, sometimes violent, but maybe mere possession or usage shouldn’t be considered one of them. That discourages people from seeking treatment. If they complete rehab but then relapse, as is common, it discourages them from being honest about it or seeking treatment again.

Addicts, or people with addictions, often relapse at least once, and some many times. Two of the worst addictive substances are legal for anyone older than 18:
• Nicotine. Most smokers have tried to quit multiple times before they quit for good. It’s one of the most addictive substances, even more than heroin according to some experts.
• Alcohol is another legal substance that can sink deep hooks into abusers. In extreme cases, it can actually be dangerous to stop too suddenly.

Of course, some people succeed at quitting the first time. How prone one is to addiction depends on multiple factors, including:
• Behavior (choosing to use drugs)
• Biology (a genetic predisposition)
• Environment (if one was raised in an environment where there was substance, emotional, or physical abuse).

Not everyone responds to the same rehab for alcohol or drugs, but imprisonment, usually with no treatment besides forced abstinence (and of course contraband drugs seem to find there way into most prisons), is nowhere on the list. It’s just punishment for punishment’s sake.