We are all drug users. Coffee, alcohol, cigarettes, weed, Viagra, ecstasy, anti-depressants, anti-anxiety pills and more – people are using these drugs on a weekly or even daily basis.
Why do we all use drugs? Because drugs work. We all have our personal reasons for using – whether for pleasure, or treating pain or otherwise. And of course many people face challenges from their drug use.
Coffee helps me start my day and gives me a little boost in the afternoon. While I know how harmful my cigarette habit is, it also gives me pleasure. I enjoy my smoke breaks throughout the day, going outside and getting some space, clearing my head and doing my people watching as New Yorkers walk by. I really appreciate my vodka sodas after work. Whether I am kicking up my feet at home or hanging out with friends, it is pleasurable for me. Smoking weed can both relax me and also give me energy. I like watching movies or eating a nice meal after a smoke and also enjoy getting deep with friends or doing some creative writing while a little high.
It’s clear to me that some of my drug use is because of stress and an attempt to push down some anxiety and difficult feelings. Life can be hard. Most of us are stressed when it comes to jobs, money, paying bills and god forbid trying to save a little bit. Watch the news and you are inundated with scary, deadly fires, hurricanes and floods. There are wars happening around the world and people fleeing violence and oppression. We have a President who is constantly attacking women and marginalized communities and playing a game of nuclear war “chicken” with North Korea. We read about school shootings on a weekly basis. We are living in nerve-wracking times. I sometimes joke, if you are not self-medicating, you are not paying attention. There is a serious opioid overdose crisis in our country right now and the reasons are many and complex. But I would wager that people’s physical and spiritual pain is a major factor contributing to the widespread use and misuse seen today.
While most people use drugs, not everyone has the same relationship with these different drugs and some of us have different experiences with drugs depending on the night or what is going on in our life at that time. The majority of people can enjoy alcohol, but for some, alcohol is a harmful drug and causes real harm and destruction in their lives. Some people can enjoy a couple of cigarettes when they have a couple of drinks. For others, there is no moderation and a single cigarette easily turns into a pack a day habit. Some use their opioids in a healthy way for their pain and for others, it can lead to serious addiction that can become the focus of their life.
While it is counterintuitive, it is worth pointing out that the overwhelming majority of people who use drugs don’t become addicted. Dr. Carl Hart, a neuroscientist and professor at Columbia University has done groundbreaking work around drug use and addiction and notes that, “80 to 90 percent of people who use illegal drugs are not addicts. They don't have a drug problem. Most are responsible members of our society. They are employed. They pay their taxes. They take care of their families. And in some cases they even become president of the United States.”
While drug use and abuse don’t discriminate, our drug policies do. The war on drugs is a vicious war on people and African Americans and people of color feel the brunt of this war. Despite similar rates of use and sales, African Americans go to prison at 13 times the rates of whites for drugs. While marijuana legalization is becoming mainstream and entrepreneurs are getting rich, we still have hundreds of thousands of people getting stopped, frisked and arrested for marijuana – mostly young people of color. Last year, in “progressive” New York City, 18,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession with African Americans and Latinos making up 85% of the arrests. People who are arrested often face immediate and long-term consequences that can make it difficult to get and keep a job, maintain a professional license, obtain educational loans, secure housing, or even keep custody of a child or adopt.
So if we can agree that the majority of people in society are using drugs, and if most people who use drugs don’t have a problem, what should be done about it? The answer is not what Donald Trump is proposing. His proposals are building a wall along the border, telling people to “Just Say No” and doubling down on law enforcement and mass incarceration. I think it is pretty obvious that our 50-year war on drugs is not the answer.
So how should our society deal with people who use drugs? I propose four 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; 3) continue to hold people responsible for crimes that harm others; and 4) fight like hell to end the war on drugs and stop locking up our brothers and sisters.
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 percent 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 available on request. We should remove barriers to entering treatment, which is far more effective and less expensive than putting someone in jail. 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 need supervised injection facilities where people can use in safe places with medical staff on hand to make sure people don’t die from an overdose. 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. As I mentioned earlier, the vast majority of people who use drugs don't have problems from their use.
More than 1.5 million people are arrested every year in the U.S. simply for drug possession. 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.
4) Fight to end the war on drugs and stop locking up our brothers and sisters.
The war on drugs is really a war on us. It is time to decriminalize all drugs and stop arresting people simply for using or possessing a certain substance. We are all using drugs, most non-problematically. How can we allow the police to target, arrest and lock up our brothers and sisters in cages for something we are all doing? Let's help people with drug problems, leave in peace those without a problem, hold responsible those who harm others and end this tragic, inhumane war on drugs. Let's get people to care about this.
Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance.
Photo via Eric Kilby.