According to U.S. drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, the war on drugs is off. The Administration is taking a new approach to drug and alcohol use disorders, one that focuses less on criminalizing those suffering from substance use disorder, and more on helping them. “Drug policy reform should be rooted in neuroscience, not political science,” said Kerlikowske in a statement this month. “It should be a public health issue, not just a criminal justice issue. That’s what a 21st-century approach to drug policy looks like.”
Experts agree that the war on drugs has been ineffective and that even something as simple as the terminology we use for addiction disorders contributes to the shame and stigma that surround drug and alcohol use.
The Disease Model of Addiction
We now know that addiction is a disease. Research over the past decade has shown that some people are genetically at higher risk for developing an addiction. Because of genetics, these individuals can become addicted to drugs or alcohol much more easily than others.
We also know that when someone uses drugs or alcohol, they chemically alter areas of their brain. Once dependent on a substance, willpower is not enough to overcome the addiction. Treating a substance use disorder requires therapy and behavior modification techniques under the care of a skilled professional.
The Stigma of Addiction Disorders in New Jersey
However, even the terminology that is used for individuals who are addicted to drugs or alcohol can be degrading, causes embarrassment, and results in many individuals and their families trying to hide the addiction.
Dr. John Kelly of Harvard’s new Recovery Research Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital spoke about this topic last week at the White House summit on drug policy reform. Dr. Kelly firmly believes that changing the language we use with this topic will go a long way toward ending the shame and embarrassment that surround these disorders. “The rhetoric and language of ‘the war on drugs’ talks about ‘abuse’ and ‘abusers’, and the new movement, toward smarter criminal justice and a more public health approach, need to look at it as a medical condition and talk about it as ‘substance use disorder,’ which is more accurate medical terminology,” said Dr. Kelly.
Of course, someone who struggles with a substance use disorder does hold responsibility for their circumstances, but it is not beneficial to use this language when trying to get the person to accept help. Of all the individuals in America who are in need of treatment for a drug or alcohol use disorder, only about 10% of them actually get the help they need. The reason millions of people are not seeking help is the social stigma that accompanies addiction disorders. Individuals and families are denying they have a problem because they are afraid of what others will think of them.
Both the drug czar and experts like Dr. Kelly agree that the perception of substance use disorders must change, and we as a nation must change how we handle these individuals as well. Instead of judging and punishing someone with an addiction disorder, we should offer treatment programs that meet their needs and help them get back to living a sober life.