Actress Lindsay Lohan returned to jail today for failing a drug test. This is her third time she has been locked up for violating the terms of her probation stemming from her 2007 conviction for DUI and drug charges. There is no doubt that she has a problematic relationship with alcohol and other drugs - but what she needs is access to an effective drug treatment program, not a "skid bid," to help her with her drug problems.
In my experience doing a 12-year sentence for a nonviolent drug law violation, I witnessed hundreds of drug addicted people cycle in and out of the prison I was in. Like Lohan, many were given "skid bids," slang for a short sentence, usually measured in months instead of years and meant to help them with drug problems.
But it's well established that incarcerating people who use drugs does far more harm than good. It does nothing to treat addiction, it's much more expensive than real treatment, and it's an affront to human rights and civil liberties. Our drug policies fail to account for the fact that drug use is a health issue and that relapse is an expected part of the recovery process.
Lohan is just one of hundreds of thousands of people in the United States who will spend the night locked in a cage for their drug problems. She has admitted that she has a problem. In recent posts on her Twitter account she wrote, "Substance abuse is a disease, which unfortunately doesn't go away over night," and "I am working hard to overcome it and am taking positive steps." Taking responsibility one's actions is a powerful step in the right direction.
But unfortunately our government and the powers that be continue to lock up people with drug addictions instead of giving them treatment. I think that most fail to realize is that relapse is an expected part of recovery. Treatment is valid for fighting the demons of addiction and an effective tool in overcoming the government's use of incarceration and punitive measures in response to low-level, nonviolent drug law offenses stemming from addiction.
According to Justice Department statistics, the United States holds a firm lead in maintaining the most prisoners of any country in the world, now at 2.3 million, including 500,000 for drugs. Criminal justice experts attribute the exploding U.S. prison population to harsh sentencing laws and record numbers of drug law offenders, many of whom have substance abuse problems.
Should we treat drug addiction as a criminal matter or a medical problem? For most people, treatment is much more effective than incarceration for breaking their addictions, yet our prisons are full of drug-addicted individuals. Nonviolent drug offenders should be given an opportunity to receive treatment, not jail time, for their drug use. This would be a more effective and a much more affordable solution for the individual and the community.
Our 40-year war on drugs has stifled the open debate this country should be having about addiction and how best to deal with it. It is time to treat addiction for what it is, a medical problem, not a criminal one.
Anthony Papa is the author of 15 to Life and the Manager of Media Relations for the Drug Policy Alliance
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