Do you have a coworker who always seems to be sick, or a friend who can’t seem to shake a cold? Maybe you know a friend or family member who always wears long-sleeved shirts despite warm weather. These are the subtle symptoms of heroin addiction – a drug so seductive, few ever shake it on their own.

The more obvious symptoms – weight loss, track marks, nodding out (drifting in and out of consciousness) – are easy to spot. But what people never see is the profound loss that accompanies heroin addiction. There’s debilitating personal and emotional consequences. And a hefty economic tax.

For a moment, imagine walking around for a year, seeing $80 dollars slowly disintegrating in every person’s hand. Or envision every citizen in America, including the elderly, newborns, toddlers and children, being robbed of $80 dollars at gunpoint once a year. That’s the cost of heroin addiction in America. In 1996.

Up-to-date statistics simply don’t exit. The most recent study on the high cost of heroin in America was conducted in 1996. It’s probably safe to assume these numbers have, at the very least, doubled over 18 years – heroin epidemic notwithstanding.

It may sound apathetic to approach the heroin menace with a dollars and sense lens. When you consider the solutions being offered by experts, however, it’s actually a compassionate approach.

Many people don’t view heroin addiction, or addiction itself, as a legitimate disease. Despite its recognition by every professional medical association as an illness, some simply see “junkies.” But dissenters can’t argue with numbers. Simply put, the money America devotes to criminalization is not a solution. Think of addiction as a fire, and criminalization as gasoline.

Instead of treating heroin addicts, our legal system locks them in jail. There, heroin addicts make new criminal connections. There’s a reason jail is called “Con College.” Whether it’s theft, drug dealing, identity theft or fraud, addicts learn to hone their craft amongst a “Who’s Who” of the criminal community.

Incarceration costs money. Lots of money. It costs American taxpayers more to incarcerate a heroin addict for one year at over $30,000 dollars than it would to provide quality inpatient treatment for 90 days. And with 1 in 100 American adults currently incarcerated due to a failed War on Drugs, it’s high time for heady conversation. Pun definitely intended.

Of course, America won’t suddenly change its entire legal framework surrounding nonviolent drug offenses. Years of advocacy and academic research have only begun to reframe the drug war dilemma.

There’s a deeper issue here that’s often neglected. Why must addicts commit crimes for drugs? Here’s the answer almost no one in government wants to admit – that addicts execute crimes because drugs come at an inflated price. Artificial cost is the result of a black market created through criminalization. Black markets lend power to the criminal element. Prohibition, a period of time when alcohol was illegal, was a classic example of this phenomenon.

The true irony is making narcotics illegal actually increases crime. Laws create black markets. Black markets inflate prices. Drugs cost more. Thus heroin addicts commit more crimes to get more money. It’s an elegant, self-sustaining system that ensures a never-ending cycle of addiction, crime and punishment.Here’s a sad fact: I talk to families and people with substance abuse disorders everyday who have very limited access to addiction treatment. For individuals with no resources, there’s simply not much available.

State-funded treatment centers run out of funding prior to the end of the fiscal year. They often run long wait-lists. And anyone in addiction treatment knows the “window of willingness,” a period of time where a substance abuser is willing to go to treatment, is narrow. After a few days, most people with addiction lose the motivation to go to a residential recovery program.

Yet lack of state funding for people with limited resources isn’t the only issue. Many state-funded treatment centers (or centers that accept state health insurance) have questions surrounding quality of care. To put it nicely, I’ve heard stories.But not easy. A price must be paid. Politicians must recognize their own shortcomings with regards to effective drug policy. That only happens when citizens demand change.

First, drug policy needs to shift from incarceration for nonviolent offenses to treatment. Second, drug laws must create a tightly-regulated market for the safe distribution of presently illegal narcotics. Regulation should be crafted with an emphasis on evidence-based harm reduction programs. Third, all revenue from a tightly-regulated narcotics marketplace funnel to outcome-proven addiction treatment programs.As a recovering heroin addict with long-term sobriety, it sounds ludicrous to suggest total narcotic normalization. I understand that, especially for the older generation that grew up with Nixon, Reagan and Bush-era drug policy, it’s almost unfathomable to consider. Drugs, available in stores, just like alcohol?

Yes.While I agree drugs are dangerous, so is driving on the interstate, having surgery for a health condition, skydiving, swimming in the ocean, operating heavy machinery – the list goes on. All of these activities are dangerous, which is why we have discussions on how to safely engage these actions, and regulations/laws to promote safety. When it comes to narcotics, however, safe use is mega taboo. Does that make sense?

It’s almost like some people refuse to acknowledge that…

  • Drugs are available to our youth and more accessible than alcohol
  • Drugs are used by millions of Americans on a regular basis
  • Drugs aren’t going away anytime soon
  • Drug supply has consistently risen over the years

For advocates of current drug policy to claim success, they must demonstrate that criminalization has resulted in a decreased drug supply and consumption. I feel comfortable not even citing statistics here because it’s common knowledge that hasn’t happened. That’s why the London School of Economics released a report calling for a new approach to the War on Drugs. All five of the economists in this report are Nobel Peace Prize winners, so they know the financial cost of addiction. 

“The drug war’s failure has been recognized by public health professionals, security experts, human rights authorities and now some of the world’s most respected economists,” said John Collins, coordinator of LSE IDEAS International Drug Policy Project and editor of the report.

There’s really no good argument to continue current drug policy, especially when you consider the costs of heroin addiction. In 1996. It’s economic and humane to treat rather than incarcerate. I don’t want to sound extreme, but the addiction crisis is not unlike the American Civil Rights struggle in the 1960s.

People with substance abuse disorders deal with legitimate discrimination in society and government. Academic experts call for change. Advocacy groups call for change. It’s high time for the American people to call for sensible change. The archaic system is decaying. Let’s help it crumble quicker.



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