How Should Our Society Deal With People Who Use Drugs?

September 23, 2014 - By Tony Newman

The war on drugs is a cruel joke. The U.S. spends more than $50 billion a year on the "war on drugs" with the goal of creating a "drug-free society" – yet there has never been a “drug-free society” in the history of civilization. Virtually all of us take drugs every single day.  Caffeine, sugar, alcohol, marijuana, Prozac, Ritalin, opiates and nicotine are just some of the substances that Americans use on a regular basis.

Drugs are so popular because people use them for both pleasure and for pain. Drugs can be fun. How many of us enjoy having some drinks and going out dancing? How many of us enjoy a little smoke after a nice dinner with friends? Many people bond with others or find inspiration alone while under the influence of drugs. On the flip side, many people self-medicate to try to ease the pain in their lives. How many have us have had too much to drink to drown our sorrows over a breakup or some other painful event? How many of us smoke cigarettes or take prescription drugs to deal with anxiety or stress? Throughout recorded history, people have inevitably altered their consciousness to fall asleep, wake up, deal with stress, and for creative and spiritual purposes.

The vast majority of Americans agree that the drug war is not working.  So how should our society deal with people who use drugs? I propose three simple solutions: 1) Offer treatment and compassion to people who want help for their drug problems; 2) leave people alone who don’t want or need treatment; and 3) continue to hold people responsible for crimes that harm others.

  1. Offer treatment and compassion to people who have drug problems.  While our society gives lip-service to helping people struggling with drug misuse or addiction, 90% of folks who want treatment can’t get it. Meanwhile, thousands of people are forced into treatment every year simply because they were arrested for drug possession, even though many of them don’t meet the diagnostic criteria for substance dependence.

    We should have free treatment on demand. We should remove barriers to entering treatment, which is far less expensive than criminalization.  We need to reduce overdose deaths by getting the overdose reversal drug Naloxone into the hands of people who use opiates and their family members. We need laws that allow people to call 911 when witnessing an overdose without fear of arrest.  We should make methadone and replacement therapy available to those who want it. We should acknowledge that relapse happens and not kick people out of treatment who slip up.

  2. Leave alone people who don’t want or need treatment. Many people are surprised to learn that the vast majority of people who use drugs don’t have problems from their use. As Columbia neuroscientist Dr. Carl Hart often points out, the federal government’s own data shows the overwhelming majority (80-90%) of all drug use is not problematic or indicative of addiction.

    More than 1.5 million people are arrested every year in the U.S. simply for drug possession. Young people – especially those who are black and Latino – feel the brunt of drug enforcement. Despite similar rates of use, African Americans are 13 times more likely to be incarcerated for drug use. The majority of these people don’t have drug problems and yet we are handcuffing them and saddling them with criminal records that will severely limit their opportunities in life.

  3. Continue to hold people responsible for crimes that harm others. People who harm others, whether on drugs or not, need to be held responsible. Simply using or possessing drugs should not be cause for arrest, but if someone gets behind the wheel while impaired, or commits a predatory or violent crime against someone, they should continue to be held accountable.

The war on drugs is really a war on us. It is time to stop arresting people simply for using or possessing drugs. Let’s help people with drug problems, leave in peace those without a problem, and hold responsible those who harm others.

Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance (

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