More "Collateral Damage" from Iraq: Trauma, Drug Addiction and Prison

05/25/2011 12:05 pm ET
  • Tony Newman Director of Media Relations, Drug Policy Alliance

Thanks to the Washington Post exposé, our nation is learning about the inadequate treatment of wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. While our elected officials express their outrage, I wonder if any of them will be moved to help all the soldiers returning with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As with the Vietnam War, many of our returning troops will likely self-medicate their symptoms stemming from the trauma of war.

The issue of substance abuse and trauma will be the focus of a conference being hosted this Thursday by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA). The conference will look at the trauma faced by U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq, victims of sexual abuse and survivors of Hurricane Katrina, and the relationship between trauma and drug addiction. Conference speakers include former drug czar, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, and Nora D. Volkow, director, National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

Any service members who are incarcerated and separated from their families because of their addiction will become yet more "collateral damage" of this war. U.S. prisons are already filled with nonviolent drug law offenders, many serving long sentences for small amounts of drugs. It is easy for people to buy a bumper sticker and demand that we "support the troops" but, if we are going to walk the talk, we had better offer treatment--not a jail cell--as we help our brothers and sisters heal from war.

It is encouraging to see leading national figures address the issues of trauma and self-medication with legal and illegal drugs. But I have to wonder whether they will also speak out against the mass incarceration of people convicted of nonviolent drug law offenses. The United States leads the world by far in locking up its fellow citizens, fueled by locking up petty drug offenders. We need these officials and others to speak out clearly against a failing drug war strategy that seeks to lock up our fellow citizens, many of whom are self-medicating due to trauma from sexual and/or physical abuse, the Katrina disaster or the Iraq War.