Columns 2014

Addiction is not a crime, it’s a medical problem

Here’s the sentence that blew my mind last week, and it had nothing to do with Don Young being re-elected. An article about marijuana legalization stated that support for legalization was dropping and had reached a low of 51%.  Who ever thought I’d live long enough to find the bottom line of approval on pot legalization being above half?

How did we get from a time when pot was the devil’s weed to a time when common sense prevailed? Society finally seems ready to put old prejudices away and deal with pot in a realistic and functional manner.

As someone who has worked in human services for many years, I was unfortunately able to become intimately involved with dysfunctional and abusive families. In every family in which addictive use of a substance was part of the problem, that substance was invariable alcohol and/or coke, not pot. If pot was used in those homes, it was to come down from the harsh high of other substances. Homes in which only pot was present were rarely, if ever, violent… unless you were trying to hog the nachos. The worse that could be said is that those homes contained way more junk food than should be ingested by most humans and the choice of TV programs leaned towards cartoons, anime and sports.

I am aware that some people cannot and should not use pot. It is a substance that can be addictive and, like with alcohol, if you become addicted to it there is a raft of problems that can ensue. Some people lose all enthusiasm and ambition and take to a reclined position on the piece of furniture nearest to their game console. In fairly rare cases, some get violent. But the same can be said not only for alcohol, but also for a sugar addiction. The thing is, we need to learn how to cope with the medical issue of addiction in a way that does not criminalize the addict. We already have the largest jailed population in the world. Why we would deliberately add more when there is a simpler, more effective and certainly cheaper alternative?

Addiction treatment is not always successful. For many addicts it takes multiple attempts before they finally climb that mountain. And once on top, they often must cling ferociously to their sobriety since falling off that peak is sadly easy to do. There are many addicts who simply don’t want to be treated. They don’t see a problem with their addiction and don’t understand why the world just won’t leave them alone. Now this may be the Alaskan in me talking but honestly, if they are not hurting anyone else, don’t they have the right to continue to use until their ultimately sad and early end? It may break the hearts of their family members who want them to live happy and healthy lives. And it may cause society in general to look at them with pity. We should always offer them alternatives, but unless they make the choice to use those alternatives, there is little that can be done for an addict who wants to keep using. Taking my tax dollars to pay for them to continue their addiction in jail where drugs are often as available as on the street is simply counterproductive. We spend a lot of money to achieve nothing.

It took society a long time to reach the point where alcohol could neither be used as an excuse or a mitigating circumstance for a crime. If you get behind the wheel of your car drunk and hurt someone, you made a choice, albeit a stupid one based on an addled brain. Just as alcohol is no longer an excuse for hitting someone, neither should pot or any other drug be offered as a mitigating circumstance in a crime. Do the crime, do the time.

But simply being an addict is not a crime. And if we’re going to jail people for not taking care of their medical conditions, then there are a lot of smokers with emphysema who should be in jail to say nothing of the diabetics out there who continue to consume sugars and carbs with no care for the medical consequences.

Pot is not the problem. Addiction is the problem. And that’s a medical, not criminal, issue.