Drug incarceration statistics are revealing prevalent issues that may actually be negatively impacting ongoing drug use and addiction recovery.
In 2021, Oregon became the first state to move toward decriminalization. On November 3, Oregon voters forced significant reforms providing a new tactic to address the disease of addiction head-on, ultimately attempting to upend America’s decades-long war on drugs. While still controversial, the notion of eliminating a system that fuels drug-related violence and funnels million into jails and prisons is becoming more critical. Drug arrests are at an all-time high and annual data proves that drug epidemics, like the ongoing opioid crisis, are showing no signs of slowing.
The central pillar of the country’s drug war is criminal prohibition. America’s stance on alcohol and substance use and drug possession is met with long-standing stigmas, highlighted by stark regulations and a cycle of criminality that keeps sick patients from receiving adequate treatment. Drug incarceration statistics in the U.S. are painting a grim outlook for rehabilitation and, further, exacerbating the nation’s most prevalent disease. As a result, science is questioning the efficacy of jail time as evidence-based care. It begs the question, how many drug addicts are relapsing after jail? Is incarceration a viable approach in an attempt to identify the ‘cure’ of a chronic illness plaguing rural and urban communities nationwide? Conclusions don’t appear favorable.
Treating Drug Abuse with Criminal Justice
In the 1960s, drugs became symbols of youthful rebellion, social upheaval, and political dissent. The U.S. government halted scientific research on various substances to evaluate medical safety. Then in 1971, President Nixon, in a historic moment, declared what was to be called the “war on drugs.” At the time, several policies were adopted in response including:
- Increasing the size and presence of federal drug control agencies
- Pushing measures for mandatory sentencing
- Promoting and executing no-knock warrants
- Adopting zero-tolerance policies for drugs
Over the next few decades, drug incarceration statistics sored at unprecedented rates. The number of people behind bars for nonviolent drug law offenses increased from 50,000 in 1980 to well over 400,000 by 1997. Ironically, drug abuse became commonplace, and as pharmaceuticals like oxycodone and Vicodin hit the markets, overdose fatalities became a new norm.
Social Views of Addiction
Simultaneously, the media’s portrayal of drugs seemed to coincide with its criminality. Public concern about illicit substances grew significantly. It wasn’t long before crack cocaine rocked through urban city centers, and by then, the communities’ ever-present fear made jail seem like the best method of containing the dangers of drug abuse.
Separately, well-known youth program D.A.R.E. sought to provide educational guidance to school-age children. The program, while originally hailed a success, was established without fundamental research, and even today, D.A.R.E. has done little to dissuade adolescents from succumbing to the endless cycle of substance abuse. The latest statistics show that nearly 20% of high school students in America have been offered, sold, or given drugs on school property.
In addition, increasingly harsh drug laws blocked the expansion of treatment options and other harm reduction policies like clean syringe access that may have reduced the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS, particularly in the early 1990s. While rates of illicit drug use remain constant, overdose fatalities are continuing to rise rapidly.
Today, drug incarceration statistics show that well over 700,000 people are still arrested for marijuana offenses annually and almost 500,000 people are still behind bars for nonviolent drug law violations.
Drug Addiction: A New Perspective
Over the last several decades, science and addiction treatment specialists have made progress in researching substance dependency as a chronic disease. Across the nation, treatment centers are attempting to address the ongoing struggles with alcohol and drug misuse and establish a clear understanding of treatment modalities that are effective to tens of thousands of Americans in need.
The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependency estimates that over 23 million Americans (age 12 and older) are addicted to either alcohol, prescription medications, or illicit drugs. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), just under 11% received care at an addiction treatment facility in 2014.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the use of and addiction to alcohol, nicotine, and illicit drugs costs the U.S. more than $740 billion a year related to healthcare, lost productivity, and crime. Despite these astronomical costs reflective of current policy, addiction statistics pronounce the lack of resources available for those suffering from substance use disorder (SUD) and underlying mental health conditions, more commonly referred to as co-occurring disorder. Reports from 2019 conclude:
- Drug overdose deaths rose 4.6% to 70,980, including 50,042 involving opioids (CDC)
- Alcohol abuse is the third leading cause of preventable death in America accounting for over 95,000 deaths annually
- Tobacco is also linked to an estimated 480,000 deaths per year
Drug incarceration statistics detail a perspective on national punishment. Here are some key facts:
- In 2016, more than 1.5 million people were arrested for a drug-related crime
- Two arrests take place for drug possession every minute in the U.S.
- As many as 80% of all jailed offenders (whether the crime was drug-related or not) have a problem with substance abuse
Modern-day conversations about SUD capitalize on addiction as a disease, representing a clear seismic shift in how the medical and public communities understand the spectrum of substance abuse. But even as our understanding of human psychology and neuroscience expands, what we thought we knew about addiction, and how it works, continues to reveal surprises about the science of human behavior and thought.
Improved perception of substance abuse, and the people who suffer from it, has led to more state and local governments adopting policies toward addiction that treat people as victims, not criminals.
Despite the age and history of substances like alcohol, prescription medications, and illicit drugs, addiction was only recently categorized as a disease.
Addiction: A Chronic Disease
As explained in an article on NIH MedlinePlus, the media has long sensationalized substance abuse. The negative stigma that surrounds drug use causes many to view addiction as a personal choice. However, scientists and medical professionals have long suspected that addiction actually stems from a change in the chemical makeup of the brain. Even with evidence-based research, it took years before this idea was professionally accepted and it is only now beginning to lead the way for improved treatment options. Addiction is, in fact, a disease.
Alcoholism was first recognized as an illness in 1956 by the American Medical Association (AMA). Substance addiction wasn’t viewed that way until much later in 1987. Then in 2013, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) moved forward with making changes to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM-5). Within the manual, a new classification was developed shifting the term addict to addiction, or a person suffering from substance use disorder. A new definition highlighted a few key points:
According to the Mayo Clinic, drug addiction, also called substance use disorder, is a chronic relapsing disease that affects a person’s brain and behavior and leads to an inability to control impulses as they pertain to legal or illegal drug use.
Further, this disease is characterized by certain parameters, not dissimilar to other diseases like cancer and diabetes. Some of these characteristics include:
- Inability to abstain from abuse of a substance(s), or from addiction triggers or cravings
- Loss of or decreased control of behavior
- Loss of or inability to recognize the issues with this change in behavior (rationalization changes)
- Changes in emotional response
Unfortunately, the view of alcoholics and drug addicts being lazy sinners who lack the ability to say “no” still prevails. The science behind addiction moves to eliminate long-standing views of how addiction impacts individuals and the treatment modalities that may prove useful for long-term recovery.
In assessing how many drug addicts relapse after jail, experts conclude that incarceration may only be addressing surface-level symptoms rather than providing long-term recovery care. Additionally, it may only exacerbate the issue since criminal records prevent many from reintegrating into society in any real, beneficial way.
How Much Does Addiction Cost?
While alcohol and drugs cause numerous health issues and can be incredibly damaging or impactful to families and communities, addiction carries a different type of burden: economic costs.
The estimated cost of drug abuse exceeds $740 billion annually, but this figure is largely based on data collected in 2013, and with growing opioid abuse, the current numbers are likely substantially higher. The National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) estimates that the annual cost of drug-related crime in the U.S. is more than $61 billion with the criminal justice system cost making up $56 billion of the total.
At least one in four people who go to jail will be arrested again within the same year. Many of these individuals are dealing with external factors such as poverty, mental illness, and substance use disorders, whose problems only worsen with incarceration. – Prison Policy Initiative
Incarceration Fails to Address Long-Term Recovery
The heart of the issue is that incarceration doesn’t seem to address two key components of SUD: mental health and relapse. Since addiction is classified as a chronic, relapsing disease, clinicians have concluded that without addressing comorbidity, relapse is inevitable.
Further, former inmates are at high risk for death from a drug overdose and many former inmates return to environments that strongly trigger relapse. Interventions that prevent overdose for thousands may also be beneficial upon prison release. If implemented, interventions should include structured treatment with a gradual transition to the community, enhance protective factors, and a clear plan to reduce the potential for relapse. However, at this time, few to none of these programs are being offered to incarcerated individuals. It’s simply not an option and therefore data on efficacy remains inconclusive.
Drug Incarceration Statistics Suggest Structured Treatment is More Effective
Drug incarceration statistics suggest that current methods for inmate rehab are actually counterproductive to combating substance use disorders (SUD). Evidence-based alcohol and drug abuse treatment modalities, such as therapy, sober living, and skills training have shown a reduction in associated health and social costs by far more than the cost of treatment itself.
Conservative estimates suggest that for every dollar invested in addiction treatment programs, returns yield between $4 and $7 in reduced drug-related crime, criminal justice costs, and theft. When savings related to healthcare are included, total savings can exceed costs by a ratio of 12 to 1. Major savings to the individual and local communities are extensive and include:
- Fewer interpersonal conflicts
- Greater workplace productivity
- Fewer drug-related accidents including overdoses and deaths
The average cost for one full year of methadone maintenance treatment is approximately $4,700 per patient, whereas one full year of imprisonment costs taxpayers approximately $24,000 per person. -National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)
Incarceration Doesn’t Address Mental Health
One of the most prevalent issues among individuals battling with a substance use disorder is underlying mental health conditions often referred to as co-occurring disorders. A well-known dual diagnosis is PTSD and alcohol use disorder or substance abuse among active-duty military and veterans.
According to SAMHSA, approximately 9.2 million adults are living with co-occurring mental and substance use disorders. Those who have experienced mental health issues or suffer from serious mental illnesses are significantly more likely to use cigarettes, illicit drugs, and marijuana, to misuse opioid pain relievers, and to engage in binge alcohol use, compared with individuals without mental illness. Individuals who struggle with underlying trauma, depression, anxiety, and other factors are far more susceptible to substance dependency. Without proper support and scientific-based therapy, many are hard-pressed to find a life away from drugs.
According to the Epidemiologic Catchment Area study, an estimated 45% of individuals with alcohol use disorders and 72% of individuals with drug use disorders had at least one co-occurring psychiatric disorder.
Jail and prisons are not equipped or trained to address these common dual diagnoses. Drug incarceration statistics, in fact, indicate that more individuals are less likely to access mental health care. To make matters worse, due to criminal records, damage to employment prospects increases the likelihood of recurring criminal sentences.
Rather than investing in community-driven safety initiatives, cities and counties are still pouring vast amounts of public resources into the processing and punishment of minor drug offenses.
Studies have pointed out that when resources are made available, individuals are more likely to succeed in their personal and professional lives. Further, with proper skillset training, ongoing therapy, and group support, individuals who battle through addiction can re-enter society and contribute without becoming reliant on government-based assistance programs or being looped back into the criminal justice system.
Overall, substance abuse is more prevalent among families living in poverty. Around 20% of people on welfare in America reported using some kind of illicit drug in the last year. Similarly, data from 2014 estimates that 48% of the homeless population suffer from alcohol use disorder (AUD), and 26% abuse drugs. Drug incarceration statistics are depicting a reality that may never solve the nation’s problems with drugs and alcohol.
Effective Methods for Treating SUD
If not incarceration, what are alternatives to effectively treat substance abuse and dependency?
Given the rate of co-occurring mental health and addiction, treatment programs nationwide are beginning to recognize the importance of offering integrated programs. One of the problems with existing drug rehabilitation centers is that they’re only focused on helping people recover from drug or alcohol abuse alone. Key elements of integrated treatment include:
- Coordinated treatment for multiple disorders
- no division between substance abuse and mental health treatments
- All health professionals collaborate in one setting
- Bundled interventions
In an article published by the American Psychology Association (APA), “It’s not unusual to see someone who’s dealing with depression or anxiety to start self-medicating.” Studies have demonstrated that police often arrest the mentally ill when treatment alternatives would be preferable. Jail may contain disproportionate numbers of severely mentally ill persons who have co-occurring disorders.
Medication for Drug Abuse
When combined with counseling and behavioral therapies to assist in a patient’s recovery, medications also play an important role in many addiction treatment protocols.Various medications may be used to help reduce cravings and manage withdrawal from opioids, alcohol, benzodiazepines, and other sedatives. Methadone and buprenorphine, for example, can help many suffering from opioid dependency. Unfortunately, medications like these are not as widely available in most state prisons and county jails.
Additionally, treatment systems that are tailored to individuals’ needs seem to yield the highest success rates among those facing substance dependency. Generally, a one-size-fits-all approach leads to more relapse cases and more criminal punishment.
Healing the Whole Person
The short answer is that holistic, integrative, and evidence-based approaches are most effective. Programs should offer a comprehensive evaluation, conduct a full history of a person’s past traumatic events, or underlying mental health conditions, provide ongoing therapy, and address specific substances like methamphetamine, cocaine, or alcohol abuse. Biology, in some respects, also dictates how some are more prone to addiction. Preventive measures should be deployed to help people, particularly our youth, avoid drug use, and be aware of the dangers of prescription abuse.
Holistic care can also provide a more balanced approach to include:
- Diet/Long-term health
Eliminating Addiction Stigma
The more we develop an understanding of habitual drug use, including its myriad of causes, the better society can approach addiction as a disease that is harmful to families, individuals, and communities. Effective treatment options can reduce economic costs and eliminate the need for expensive criminal prosecution.
Stigma and the resulting shame that many experiences with ongoing alcohol and drug misuse provide the perfect environment to make addiction a likely scenario. Studies produced by the US National Library of Medicine state that individuals experiencing higher rates of shame and low self-esteem are more prone to drug and alcohol use.
AspenRidge Recovery: Combating Drug Incarceration Statistics
Recovery centers like AspenRidge are working to combat the surging drug incarceration statistics. Through various in-person treatment programs as well as outpatient programs, addiction specialists can help more individuals identify tools to overcome substance dependency as well as provide supportive care for mental health problems. This year, AspenRidge also launched its own online (virtual) addiction treatment, making it easier for individuals to find the care they need without risking entrance into the criminal justice systems.
Our comprehensive programs are provided by licensed clinicians and our treatment facility is accredited by the Joint Commission. We are one of several facilities that take a dual diagnosis approach and are trained in addressing various forms of therapy.
Our programs include:
- Day Partial Hospitalization (PHP)
- Day Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP)
- AspenRidge REACH Online IOP
- IOP for Professionals and Working Adults
- Outpatient Program
- Alumni & Aftercare Program
In all, addiction affects each person differently, so it’s imperative for treatment to be individualized. AspenRidge can provide these services and we can make adjustments to treatment plans as time progresses. The bottom line is that there are treatment modalities that work, but unfortunately, incarceration doesn’t seem to be one. Contact our helpline 24/7 at 855-281-5588.