Addiction is a cruel master and the familial, societal and personal costs associated with drug addiction are challenging. It is heartbreaking to watch someone you love struggle with an impulse they can’t control and make decisions that wreak havoc in their own life.
As this article by a physician who works in the field of substance abuse states, locking someone up for drug use is a temporary fix at best. It removes someone from the street who might be acting unpredictably, unsafely, or chaotically. It doesn’t provide support for the detox process, nor does the criminal court provide significant medical, relational, or psychological intervention. At best, court involvement attempts to coerce a defendant into taking advantage of the treatment available for them.
Sometimes, a person in the court system has hit rock bottom. The court experience becomes a motivator for these people to take the necessary actions to overcome their addiction. In that case, an arrest and prosecution is really a symptom of their problem, functioning to make their secret public and forcing them to recognize that their problem is impacting their life in a negative way.
Other times, people are in and out of the court system without making significant progress. They are simply stacking up a criminal record that desensitizes them to intervention and will prejudice them far into the future. Colorado has made substantial changes in recent years to reduce these impacts and make most possession charges misdemeanors with short jail sentences rather than felonies with long prison terms.
Ultimately, the court system offers people an opportunity to see and address their issues in the bright light of day. But the hard work of treatment, intervention, sobriety, health and recovery is done by doctors, therapists, counselors, groups and the addicted individual themself. The court system should be involved only to the degree needed to protect public safety and move people into the spaces where they have the chance to get the real help that they need.