The U.S. alone lost more than 65,000 people in 2016 due to overdoses on prescription drugs, and according to the National Center for Health Statistics, that number will continue to rise.
With the recent declaration of opioid addiction as a national health crisis, the U.S. now has an opportunity to redefine its war on drugs, which began over 45 years ago in an attempt to end the drug abuse issue. If U.S. policymakers are serious about ending the opioid crisis that plagues our nation, they must stop criminalizing the situation and start treating it as the medical epidemic it is.
The war on drugs started with the implementation of mandatory minimum sentences for those involved in any form of drug trafficking, affecting both hardcore addicts and one-time users. Many of those who struggle with an opioid addiction are rotated in and out of prison, a cycle that does nothing to help improve this national health crisis.
According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 46.3 percent of those in U.S. prisons are charged with drug offenses. Additionally, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, incarceration doesn’t work because 60-80 percent of those released end up back in prison — usually for drug related crimes — and 95 percent start using drugs again after being released.
The mandatory minimum sentencing laws made the arrest rates soar and repeatedly swept those with addiction and health issues into jail cells.
If punishing addicts instead of providing medical attention continues to be the approach to this problem, the opioid epidemic will continue to get worse in the years to come.
By declaring a national health crisis, the U.S. must take action to help addicts into recovery and clean up both the prison system and the community. The funds and resources President Donald Trump has promised in order to combat the issue should be used for medical programs, since this will actually help addicts to recover instead of just rotating them through the system and adding to the issue.
Over the span of 40 years, the U.S. has spent more than one trillion dollars in an attempt to end the war on drugs and arrested over 45 million people involved in narcotics, as reported by USA Today.
However, this has had little to no impact on the demand for drugs such as opioids or other illicit substances. In 2013, prescription opioid drugs alone cost the U.S. $78.5 billion and that number continues to rise, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
For far too long, the U.S. has not faced the opioid addiction crisis with enough importance. However, we can be and need to be the generation that puts this national health crisis to rest. The crisis will only continue to progress unless a change is made, and this change needs to begin with policymakers. Addiction is a disease, and we must start treating it like one.
Samantha Moffett is a sophomore majoring in mass communications.