Life imitating art always intrigues me. Michael Douglas who starred in Traffic, the Academy-Award-winning film about the drug war in America, now faces a real life situation similar to the role he played in the film. Douglas played the United States Drug Czar whose daughter was addicted to heroin. He struggled with his daughter's addiction and the futility of the drug war.
Late in June of this year his son, Cameron Douglas, was arrested by the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) in a sting operation for possession of methaphetamines with the intent distribute in New York City. It was not the first brush with the law for Cameron who has several arrests for cocaine possession and a 1996 bust for drunk driving. Reports also point to the good possibility that he has a severe drug problem.
The role of drugs and drug addiction loom large in our society. The question I pose is this. Should Cameron Douglas be put in prison or should he be able to seek drug treatment instead? Treatment is a valid vehicle for fighting the demons of addiction, and an effective alternative to 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 U.S. holds a firm lead in maintaining the most prisoners of any country in the world -- now at 2.3 million and rising. There are an estimated 500,000 drug offenders in prison. Additional hundreds of thousands are incarcerated for drug-related violations of parole and probation, as well as for other crimes related to drug addiction. Criminal justice experts attribute the exploding U.S. prison population to harsh sentencing laws and record numbers of drug law offenders entering the system, 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 way to overcome addiction, 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 much more affordable solution for the individual and the community.
Addiction affects tens of millions of people around the world. For most, it fills a void in their lives and becomes a crippling crutch. How best to treat addiction is a serious question we need to explore. Rich or poor, young or old, addiction has no boundaries - but the drug war does. Our 30-plus-year war on drugs has actually stifled the open debate society should be having about addiction and how best to deal with it.
I say give Cameron Douglas the treatment he needs instead of imprisonment. Why do I say this? I too faced a similar situation. Instead of treatment I received a 15 years to life sentence under the Rockefeller Drug Laws of New York State. I was granted clemency by Governor George Pataki in 1997 after serving 12 years in prison for a first time non-violent drug sale. It was a waste of valuable tax dollars and human life to send me to prison for all those years.
Instead of demonizing addicted individuals and sending them to prison we need an alternative approach. Let's shift the focus from criminalization in drug policy and support a public health model. Not sending Cameron to prison would be a good example of taking a step in that direction. It's 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 a communication specialist for Drug Policy Alliance.
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