Substance abuse is not just something that harms an individual user alone. Drug use and addiction also harms the people around the person with a substance use disorder. Under the influence of a drug or the overpowering craving, people commit crimes, behave violently, break promises, and do other destructive and harmful things they wouldn't otherwise consider.
For that reason, people in government have long taken the issue of substance abuse seriously, aiming for a multifaceted approach that involved law enforcement, education, and public health. Many politicians encouraged strict laws against drug possession, with punishments that would serve as deterrents, and keep people away from drug users.
However, in many ways the conventional consensus is being questioned in the 2016 elections, and many politicians from both the Democratic and Republican parties are calling for newer approaches.
Beginnings of Drug Use as an Issue:
Many of the laws in the U.S. were created in a climate that assumed drug use and addiction was a choice and a moral failing, and so used punitive measures to discourage First lady Nancy Reagan was one of the first political figures to go beyond a law-enforcement approach, emphasize the role of education and raising awareness with her well known "Just say No" campaign.
When a student asked her what she would do if offered drugs, Nancy responded, "I supposed I would just say 'no,'" launching a slogan that would impact popular culture as few other anti-drug messages would.
She became a tireless advocate for the anti-drug awareness campaign, spreading the message everywhere from a United Nations conference on international drug abuse in 1985, to cameos on popular television programs. While the Just Say No campaign was successful in raising awareness, causing a majority of people to consider drug abuse a very important issue in polls, overall drug experimentation did not decline.
A 2014 study in The Scientific American showed that the D.A.R.E. program, one of the most popular anti-drug curriculums in schools made virtually no difference in whether or not someone would use drugs.
A New Approach:
The 2016 New Hampshire Presidential primaries served as an important case study in how the issue is central in people's minds, forcing all politicians to respond. Polling revealed that many voters in the state considered addiction and drug policy one of their most important issues, and the one that had the biggest impact on their personal lives.
Candidate Hillary Clinton called for $10 billion for a program to provide addicts with treatment as an alternative to incarceration, and Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, and Chris Christie all shared personal stories how people they cared about had struggles with addiction. Among most of the candidates, there was an implicit criticism of past policies that emphasized harsh punishments, calling instead for compassionate, public-health driven responses that improve access to treatment.
MSNBC reporter Aliyah Frumin described this new response as "a growing consensus in America that the three-decade long War on Drugs was excessively punitive and expensive."
Addiction does not discriminate, but is something that can affect people of every ethnicity and class grouping imaginable. However, popular imagination and stereotyping sometimes relegated the problem to something "that couldn't happen to us." Although drug users came from all walks of life imaginable, many people thought of an addict as poor and non-white, leading many relatively privileged people to not consider it an issue that concerned them directly.
However, recent events in the emerging opioid and heroin epidemic, that is affecting more people than any other addiction crisis before. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are 44 deaths related to prescription drug overdoses every day, with a 400% increase among white Americans since 1999.
Just like many people's views on LGBT issues altered through personal relationships with people of different orientations, knowing someone struggling with addiction can help someone recognize the complexities of the issues and want to deal with it in a more compassionate way.
The simple fact is that punishing addicts does not make addiction go away. While there are still healthy debates that can be had regarding the appropriateness of legalizing drugs, or the best way to improve access to treatment, it is clear that we need a new way forward. Addiction and substance abuse will only be conquered through all people working together, giving everyone help for recovery when they need it and are ready for it.
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