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Daniel Robelo

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Veterans: Casualties of the Drug War

Posted: 11/11/09 05:23 PM ET

Today is Veterans' Day. Another year to remember the men and women who serve in our Armed Forces -and to do a better job of taking care of them when they come home.

With hundreds of thousands of servicemen and women currently deployed (often for second, third, or fourth tours) in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States faces a mounting challenge in providing care for our returning troops. It's clear that so far government agencies have not met this challenge, and the consequences have been devastating.

A new report by the Drug Policy Alliance, Healing a Broken System: Veterans Battling Addiction and Incarceration, documents some of the major obstacles that veterans face in accessing treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and, increasingly, substance abuse. As a result, far too many veterans are falling victim to the war on drugs.

After an exhaustive review of available research literature, and dozens of interviews conducted by a team of law students over a year and a half, the report found that nearly a third of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan report symptoms of PTSD, TBI, or other psychological wounds of war.

Left untreated, these medical conditions often contribute to substance abuse and addiction, fatal overdose, homelessness and suicide, as well as violations of the law, particularly nonviolent drug offenses. Over 200,000 veterans are behind bars--that we know of. Astonishingly, veterans in prison are serving longer average sentences than nonveterans for the same offenses. These data, however, are incomplete and out-of-date, collected in 2004, only one year into the Iraq War. Many more veterans in the justice system will never be identified at all.

Incarceration amplifies all the problems a veteran may be dealing with after returning from combat. Nearly two-thirds of incarcerated veterans meet the criteria for substance dependence or abuse, but in correctional facilities, these veterans are almost certain not to receive effective treatment, especially since internal policy of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) bars the VA from treating veterans who would otherwise be eligible for VA care while they are incarcerated. What incarcerated veterans are sure to face is a violent environment that will exacerbate their physical and mental health conditions. Many homeless veterans have been incarcerated or have criminal records that prevent them from securing housing, employment and services that are necessary for readjustment to civilian life. A jail or prison sentence, moreover, can be life-threatening for veterans, who are much more susceptible to fatal overdose and suicide during or after incarceration.

It's a sad day in America when, instead of being offered compassion and treatment, veterans struggling with substance abuse and PTSD as a result of their service are locked up for these conditions. Of course, what's happening to our veterans -- in terms of untreated addiction, incarceration and fatal overdose -is just a particularly egregious example of the cruel and pointless war on drugs, which criminalizes people who have the chronic disease of addiction instead of providing effective, community-based treatment.

The report urges local, state and federal government agencies to take immediate steps to ensure the health, safety and freedom of the men and women who serve in the U.S. Armed Forces. Its recommendations include: expanding and improving alternatives to incarceration for veterans who commit nonviolent drug offenses; adopting life-saving interventions to prevent overdose among veterans who abuse substances or take prescription medications; and increasing access to medication-assisted therapies such as methadone and buprenorphine for veterans who struggle with opioid dependence.

A few states and localities are beginning to move in the right direction. Some jurisdictions are considering or have passed legislation that mandates treatment instead of incarceration for veterans with combat-related mental health or substance abuse disorders. These efforts should be accelerated and improved.

More importantly, every effort should be made to reach veterans before they enter the justice system. This means the Department of Defense and VA must improve screening and treatment, and remove barriers to accessing needed services. It also means that local law enforcement should be trained to identify veterans in crisis and divert these veterans to needed services instead of arresting them.

In pursuing these goals, we can begin replacing the failed war on drugs at home with public health approaches that save lives, improve wellbeing, and build stronger families and communities. The veterans of our foreign wars deserve no less; indeed, they deserve a great deal more.

Note: The report will also be discussed at the International Drug Policy Reform conference in New Mexico, November 12-14.