08/03/2012 10:36 am ET Updated Oct 03, 2012

Drug Deaths: Remember and Reassess

A recent study found that 74 percent of youth aged 14-25 become regular drug injectors within one month of their first injection. Loved ones of lost drug abusers mobilized all over the world for International Remembrance Day last weekend, while the holiday went largely unnoticed in America.

International Remembrance Day, a day to remember the millions we have lost to drugs and alcohol, originated in 2008 among UK drug users at Black Poppy. Although members of the drug community established the day of tribute, today the anniversary offers peace and solace to all who gather at open celebrations held in cities throughout the world.

Each year, the original hosts encourage others to raise awareness about the day, which is primarily celebrated in Europe. Participants hold local events, protests, and trainings. As July 21st fell on a Saturday this year, many harm-reduction service centers held memorials throughout the entire week.

Our European counterparts acknowledge the horrific impact drugs have had on their societies, and they continue to pursue more rational policies as a result. On July 21st, they stopped to remember the friends and family members they have lost to drugs. Next year, I hope we will join them to assess the damages both drug addiction and drug policy have cost our nation.

In June, the UN released its annual World Drug Report, confirming, "There is a growing recognition that treatment and rehabilitation of illicit drug users are more effective than punishment." The report called upon Member States to accept prevention, treatment, rehabilitation, reintegration, and health as key elements in the global strategy to reduce drug demand. While the 2012 National Drug Control Budget appeared to distribute funding accordingly, many activists say the report is all too familiar.

According to the division of funding by the supply and demand functions used in the National Drug Control Budget, government actions intended to reduce the demand for narcotics are enhanced by efforts to curtail their supply. But we have seen the government decrease funding for treatment, prevention, and research -- while simultaneously increase funding for law enforcement, international relations, and interdiction- under such a presumption. Although the Obama Administration regularly talks about improving drug policy, the 2012 drug budget failed to make any substantial progress, granting only 41 percent to treatment and prevention initiatives.

Funding allocation is crucial when we talk about the solution to drug addiction. For every dollar spent on treatment, it is estimated that we spend $4-7 less on drug-related crimes.

International Remembrance Day is a time to honor the millions of people who die each year from drugs, both directly and indirectly. But we cannot forget that hundreds of thousands of people have also lost significant portions of their lives to the criminal justice system's focus on a public health crisis.

With over 7 million people under correctional supervision, the U.S. is often deemed the nation of mass incarceration. Drug offenses have had a substantial bearing on the prison boom. In fact, almost half (49 percent) of the growth in the federal system between 1995-2003 was due to drug offenders alone. Today, more federal inmates are serving time for drug offenses than any other crime.

Each year, we are bombarded with more research -- like the UN Report -- suggesting that long-term prison sentences do not suffice as drug rehab. Treatment programs are actually becoming rare commodities in today's prisons, regardless of their proven effectiveness. But as a recent study shows, we may want to take a closer look at our rehab programs on the outside.

The friends, family members, and fellow-addicts who gathered last weekend faced the harsh reality that when an addict fails in treatment, the consequences are dire. Comprehensive research is needed in order to investigate, determine, and provide the best possible practices to each addict that seeks help. We owe those who continue to struggle complete disclosure of all the options concerning their medical care.

A scathing new report of modern treatment suggests that like U.S. drug policy, U.S. drug treatment necessitates major reform. The CASA (National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University) report, which highlights the lack of educational requirements throughout addiction care, reveals that the field has no national standards of care. The findings are consistent with rising criticism concerning the "AA or the highway" approach many treatment programs rely on. In addition to more data collection and health care reform, the authors of the report conclude that all medical professionals need evidence-based training on risky substance abuse and addiction.

Advocates for change point to other countries for models of progress. Last weekend, I not only thought about the six years I lost to my addiction, but I looked to countries like the Netherlands, Portugal, and Switzerland for rational alternatives. While remembering the friends I lost, I thought about all the Latin American leaders, including Presidents Otto Perez and Juan Manuel Santos, who want to talk to our government about solutions.

During his presidency, Richard Nixon stated, "If we cannot destroy the drug menace in America, than it will surely in time destroy us." Despite academic and public criticism questioning policy effectiveness, the U.S. government committed $26.2 billion to continue fighting the drug war in 2012. Without a serious shift in priorities from law enforcement to treatment, prevention, and research, Nixon may be right.