Tatum O'Neal, the Oscar-winning actress, took a plea deal on July 2 stemming from her June 1 arrest while supposedly trying to score some crack cocaine in New York City's Lower East Side. She was initially charged with possession of a controlled substance and faced a year in prison if convicted. The court allowed her to plead out to a disorderly conduct charge and ordered her to attend two half-day drug treatment sessions. If she follows the courts orders they will dismiss the cocaine possession charges.
O'Neal has been open about her history of heroine addiction as outlined in her memoir, A Paper Life. When she was arrested by undercover officers they searched her and found two bags of cocaine along with an unused crack pipe. She had initially told police that she was doing research for an acting role. Then she changed her story and told them that the death of her 16-year-old dog nearly triggered her into relapse.
Some say O'Neal was treated with a slap on the wrist. Others say she did not deserve to do any jail time because of her addiction. This begs a critical question that we as a society need to address. Should we treat drug addiction as a criminal matter or a medical problem? For most people, treatment is a much more effective approach than imprisonment for successfully breaking their addictions, yet our prisons are full of individuals whose only crime is their drug 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 2.5 million and rising. In 2006, Justice recorded the largest increase since 2000 in the number of people in prisons and jails. Criminal justice experts attribute the exploding U.S. prison population to harsh sentencing laws and record numbers of drug law violators entering the system, many of whom have substance abuse problems.
Nonviolent drug offenders like Tatum O'Neal should be given an opportunity to receive treatment, not jail time, for their drug use. This would be a more effective (not to mention much more affordable) solution for both the individual and the community. Prosecutors in many states such as New York, where they have leeway to recommend a defendant to treatment instead of incarceration, more than likely will not do it. This is because it would not be considered a "win" for them. In effect, the system does not reward prosecutors for doing the compassionate thing.
O'Neal can be considered a role model to millions of young people all over the world. One can only hope that her experiences with addiction and the realities of the drug war will encourage her to join the movement to reform U.S. drug policy. If she decides to take up the cause of treatment, she could help change laws across the country. After all, if treatment instead of jail is good enough for her as she struggles with her addiction, surely it is good enough for the thousands of others just like her who struggle with their substance abuse problems every day.
Like depression, addiction affects tens of millions of Americans. How best to treat it is a serious a 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 the nature of 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.