One of my family members lost a long battle with alcoholism this weekend. Through my tears, I couldn’t help but think of the disparity in how our criminal justice system treats substances fueling addiction. My loved one could carry a bottle of booze with him every day and have no adverse criminal consequences. But, if he carried heroin, or any other illegal substance, and he encountered law enforcement, he would receive a felony conviction and perhaps a prison sentence. If legally prescribed narcotic medication fueled his addiction he would suffer no criminal consequences; yet, if he obtained narcotic medication without a prescription, again, he’d be convicted of a felony. And for the addict able to conquer his addiction, the alcoholic returns to a normal life, while the (illegal) drug addict carries a felony conviction preventing pursuit of the same opportunities as a recovering alcoholic. But in the end, addiction is addiction, no matter the substance fueling the addiction. Alcohol can be as devastating to an addict’s life as heroin. So why the continuing disparate treatment?
It is time to cease punishment for simple possession of drugs and to stop discriminating on the basis of the addicting substance. Addicts currently occupying jail and prison cells solely for possessing their drug of addiction should be released, and if they are ready to seek a sober life, provided a bed in a treatment center. The tax dollars spent housing folks for illicit drug possession crimes should be diverted to addiction treatment centers to help addicts attain sobriety and get back to being contributing members of society.
Other states have recognized the futility of arresting addicts for possession, and those states are seeing positive outcomes from offering treatment to addicts instead of jail cells. Those states recognize that the criminal justice system is poorly equipped to address addiction. Expecting cops and lawyers to be able to adequately address a disease is akin to expecting your plumber to rewire your house. The criminal justice system may see addicts who commit crimes to feed their addiction, but it doesn’t mean judges, cops and lawyers know how to treat addiction. The criminal justice system is designed to catch and punish, not provide addiction treatment. So, if an addict steals to support his addiction, it is the theft that should be addressed by the criminal justice system, not the addiction. If the addict, prior to sentencing, chooses to obtain treatment, this is a mitigating factor as a show of remorse or insight that the judge takes into account in issuing appropriate punishment.
The criminal justice system cannot fix the ails of society. The time is now to decriminalize drug possession as part of criminal justice reform legislation.
Tammi Fisher is an attorney and former mayor of Kalispell.