Some people think drug use and addiction is fundamentally a choice. No one forces an addict to try drugs for the first time or to continue taking it. As some see it, drug abuse is a personal choice and no one should be shielded from the consequences.
If addiction is a disease, though, why do most addictions end spontaneously, without treatment? Why did some 75% of heroin-addicted Vietnam vets kick the drug when they returned home?
Addiction is not a disease. It’s simply a nasty habit, says neuroscientist Dr. Marc Lewis, himself a longtime addict and professor of developmental psychology, in his new book, “The Biology of Desire.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions says treatment is important, but it's more important to make sure people don't choose to use drugs to begin with. By the time someone admits they need help, the damage has already been done. Focusing on prevention and criminal enforcement would ensure people never make that first choice. Here's what Jeff Sessions told the New Hampshire Youth Summit on Opioid Awareness:
Treatment is also important, but treatment often comes too late. Individuals have already lost their jobs and flunked their tests. Then the struggle to defeat addiction can be a long process – and it can fail. Experts will tell you that recovery is not certain. For many, addiction can be a death sentence.
I have seen families spend all their savings and retirement money on treatment programs for their children – just to see these programs sometimes fail. Having 120 people in our country die every day from drug overdoses cannot continue.
However, Portugal has shown that taking the opposite approach can actually work better than a war on drugs. Facing an immense drug epidemic, Portugal decriminalized drug possession in 2001. They began to treat addiction like a medical issue instead of a criminal decision.
Under the Portugese system, anyone caught with less than a 10-day supply of drugs receives mandatory medical treatment and skips the legal system completely.
"It's cheaper to treat people than to incarcerate them," says sociologist Nuno Cabaz. "If I come across someone who wants my help, I'm in a much better position to provide it than a judge would ever be. Simple as that."
The numbers back up Portugal's decriminalization and treatment effort. Despite early skepticism, the program has drastically reduced the number of drug abusers and overdose deaths in the country.
Cabaz's team of 10 counselors handles all of Lisbon's roughly 2,500 drug cases a year. It may sound like a lot, but it's actually a 75 percent drop from the 1990s. Portugal's drug-induced death rate has plummeted to five times lower than the European Union average.