11/14/2014 12:27 pm ET Updated Jan 14, 2015

Drug Use Is Criminal?

A ray of hope from California voters may do more to break the stigma of drug use and substance use disorder than any medical or advocacy program. In November, California became the first state to take a significant step to decriminalize drug use with the passage of Proposition 47. Within the Proposition 47 bill, Californians voted to change some nonviolent drug possession charges from felonies to misdemeanors.

Understanding that one is no longer a felon is a first step in reducing the stigma around drug use and substance use disorder. It gives individuals their dignity back and the strength to ask for help if in need of medical care for excess drug and alcohol use. It allows parents to view their children with compassion and respect. It allows those in recovery to accept those that are still using or struggling with their treatment. It allows the parent of a child lost to substance use to heal the hole in their heart. Their child is no longer considered a felon, but a beautiful child that should be remembered with love and understanding.

Every teen or adult using drugs dreads the day when they are arrested by law enforcement and are exposed as a criminal. They hid their drug use from family, friends and employers; they understand that using illicit drugs is against the law but they used drugs anyway. Knowing that drug use is a criminal act stands in the way of asking for help. Few primary care physicians ask about drug use and rarely do they know where to refer their patients. Parents are at a loss in understanding when experimentation has become a problem and neither have pediatricians been trained to identify drug and alcohol use. Zero tolerance policies in schools determine who graduates, goes on to college and who gets grant money. Felony records of drug users limit access to jobs, housing, insurance and credit. Many times it is not until an interaction with the criminal justice system do individuals have access to rehabilitation services; but only after you agree that you are a criminal first and patient second.

Some will argue that the courts are being proactive and understanding of those arrested for drug use; each state has drug treatment courts that allow the drug user a new lease on life. Stay drug- and alcohol-free, work within the established court contract and become a productive societal member again, they claim. But the expansion of drug courts have further solidified that drug users and those with substance use disorder are criminals -- criminals that need to be taught morals, forced into treatment and monitored until the court decides they are cured from their criminal behavior. Disregarding medical advancements in drug and alcohol treatment, the court must provide society with a newly abstinent individual. Those that cannot graduate with an abstinence diploma from the court-forced medical care are left to finish their criminal sentence in prison, hence the stigma continues.

Drug users that have sought out rehabilitation on their own and are now in recovery are taught to stay away from others who use drugs and alcohol. They are proud to be in recovery and join groups to celebrate their success in staying sober. They profess that their way is the right way and anyone that goes back to using recreationally has failed. The courts agree. Although harm reduction practices are gaining acceptance in the medical field with regard to alcohol and drug use, the laws do not follow emerging medical practice. Drug "addicts" must remain abstinent under current drug treatment court contracts and many of those in recovery agree.

Drug use is just that: drug use. When excess drugs and alcohol become a personal health issue, it is the medical field that should address the health issue with the patient, not forced ineffective treatments within the criminal justice system. As long as individuals are considered criminals for using drugs, and are not included in advocacy for drug education, harm reduction and recovery, stigma will continue to drive policy, access to health care, research and treatment options.

With the passage of Proposition 47, the divide between those in recovery, parents of drug users, parents that lost a child to drugs or alcohol as well as individuals that use drugs, can mend. This is the time when different viewpoints and advocacy groups could all come together to demand access to affordable medical care, matched funding for drug research, evidence-based drug and alcohol treatment and the end to the stigma of those that use drugs or are struggling with substance use disorder. It is also the time to follow California and advocate for change to drug policy. Policies concerning drug and alcohol use and misuse must be regarded as a health issue and not a criminal issue. Proposition 47 is a hopeful start.

View Proposition 47.

Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.