Editor's Note: The Citizen continues its series on the impact of drugs in the Lakes Region and American society in general with a look at the "war on drugs".
LACONIA -- The war on drugs, say substance abuse experts, needs to be recast as a health, rather than a criminal problem and resources must be reallocated from law enforcement to treatment.
The federal government spends about $20 billion per year trying to keep illegal drugs out of the U.S., with about two-thirds of it going to interdiction, eradication and law enforcement.
"The one thing that is really critical is the best way to stop the importation of illegal drugs into this country is by stopping the demand and the only way you're going to do that is by treatment," said Jacqui Abikoff, executive director of Horizons Counseling Centers in Gilford and Plymouth.
"As long as there is a demand, there will be a supply, and all the money we put into interdiction isn't going to make a dent -- and the further people sink into addiction the less likely they are to have financial resources to access treatment and if funding starts dwindling, like it looks like it will, it will make it more difficult for people to get help," Abikoff said.
"We're going to pay either for their treatment or their medical care or their incarceration."
On the treatment front, "we're starting to work with people who are in recovery or breaking through that stigma and coming forth and not having to hide because the more people see people who are in recovery who are productive members of society, the more we're likely to break through that stigma and help those who need it," said Abikoff. "The same stigma won't be attached to that. It won't be any different than from going to your doctor because you have the flu."
But the weakest link in helping people recover from substance abuse is the lack of treatment programs for them.
"We don't have nearly the amount of access to services; we don't have the services we need, not just in this area, but in the state as a whole," Abikoff said. "We have waiting lists six weeks long and, when people need help, you need to strike while the iron is hot -- because six weeks later they might have lost the motivation to deal with their disease."
The war on drugs is not working, said Abikoff, because "no matter how much enforcement you're going to fund, you're not going to get ahead if the demand is there."
Addiction, she continued, "is a brain disease. It's a very complicated disease because it is physical, it is spiritual and it is emotional but the bottom line is you can't take the physical out of it."
And, she added, it doesn't matter what the abused substance is.
By repealing prohibition, the U.S. has made "a social investment in keeping our alcohol. It's so ingrained in our culture that we defend it; but in terms of drugs, I've never quite understood which are the 'good' ones and which are the 'bad' ones because, if you're addicted, you're going to become addicted to whatever drug you use."
Nancy Dyer, a social worker and a licensed alcohol and drug educator and counselor working with the Chemical, Health Advisory Task Force at Plymouth State University, said substance abuse is a medical/psychological problem, not a moral failing.
"People look at it as a moral issue and I'm afraid that that people in this society are very judgmental about people who have addictions. They see the addict as someone who is weak-willed or somehow inferior when in fact anybody can become a drug or alcohol addict," said Dyer.
Substance abuse treatment does work, said Dyer, as does prevention education. She would like to see more education for adults, whom she believes have been overlooked, as well as for youths, particularly those entering high school where peer pressure to experiment with substances is greatest.
Dyer said she's "never been very impressed by the war on drugs."
"I don't believe war on anything is very good. We have to look at it as more of a societal issue. Why are people looking to use drugs? What are some of the underlying causes to have a person desire to use drugs? And we're looking at issues of poverty, discrimination, joblessness. All those issues, I think, are related to why people might want to escape their current sense of being because they're just feeling pretty hopeless about life."
"There has to be a real commitment to treatment, enforcement and education. Not one of them works by themselves," said Dyer.
State Rep. David A. Welch, chair of the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, concurs that treatment is a vital part of combating substance abuse and addiction.
"The idea of treatment is certainly one that the committee would endorse and I think treatment either within a secure facility or outside. If we had the treatment centers available to us it would make an impact. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to incarcerate people who are merely casual users, and I'm not sure that it's the casual users who are being incarcerated but there does not appear to be adequate programs for drug users," said Welch.
We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.