The answer to the question of whether drug abuse is a health problem or a crime problem hinges on answering two further questions: (1) Are drug abuse and addiction a disease?; and (2) Are people who are under the influence of (or addicted to) drugs legally responsible for their behavior?
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), “Drug addiction is a complex disease, and quitting takes more than good intentions.” Addiction is a disease, the article continues, because “drugs change the brain in ways that foster compulsive drug abuse,” so “quitting is difficult, even for those who are ready to do so.” Also, NIDA continues, “Addiction is a chronic, often relapsing brain disease that causes compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences to the addicted individual and to those around him or her.” But isn’t taking drugs voluntary? NIDA says, yes it is, but, “Although the initial decision to take drugs is voluntary for most people, the brain changes that occur over time challenge a person’s self-control and ability to resist intense impulses urging them to take drugs.”
The disease of drug addiction, NIDA tells us, can be treated by combining “addiction treatment medications with behavioral therapy.” In fact, “Treatment approaches that are tailored to each patient’s drug abuse … can lead to sustained recovery and a life without drug abuse.” Treatment also involves anticipating relapses and reinstating or adjusting the treatment to help the individual to recover.
Then should the law hold the addicted or the drug abuser accountable for criminal or reckless behavior engaged in as a result of said addiction? Most would agree that the public needs protection from those who would drive under the influence of drugs, or that public intoxication is detrimental to keeping our streets safe. But should the law regard addiction and drug abuse per se as unlawful?
The answer to the law’s attitude towards drug abuse and addiction may lie in the fact that, according to NIDA, the addicted individual’s self-control is either diminished or nonexistent when under the influence of drugs. Further, although the ingesting of drugs involves a disregard of resulting “harmful consequences,” the addicted person who commits a crime nevertheless meets the criteria of intent and knowledge of right and wrong that result in criminal liability.
Getting back to the original question, “Should drug abuse be treated as a health problem or a crime problem?” the answer would appear to be “both:”
♦ Treatment of drug abuse as a disease gets to the heart of curing addiction. If we could wipe out addiction, we could defeat drug traders far more effectively than just by interdicting supply and distribution. The Mexican drug cartels would quickly lose interest in the lucrative U.S. drug market.
♦ To the extent that drugs and their abuse remain a danger to public order, those on drugs must be held accountable for unlawful behavior. A drunk or an addict might night be able to resist the whiskey or cocaine hit, but it is not too much to ask that they refrain from behavior that endangers everyone. In fact, it may even be the law and the consequences of irresponsible, drug-induced activity that finally forces the person with the disease of addiction to get treated.