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An Addiction Counselor's War on Drugs

The war in Afghanistan is now considered the longest war in United States history.

Wrong.

The US government’s "War on Drugs" recently turned 40. The longest war in American history by far has been for the most part under the radar of the general public now for four decades. Flashback: Nixon is president, hot pants are in, and Three Dog Night's "Joy to the World" is the #1 song of the year.

I'm embarrassed to admit that it's been under my radar also until the publicity this summer about the 40th anniversary. Since then I’ve become aware of the work of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) and the grassroots movement Moms United to End the War on Drugs, all of whom advocate for the reduction of the harm associated with drug policies and for policies, as suggested by LEAP, "grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights".

I've written elsewhere as Examiner.com's Fort Washington Addiction and Recovery Examiner about the reasons for the government's failed policy, focusing mostly on the demand end of the equation: the nature of human beings and addiction. Our nature is to move towards pleasure and away from pain and if someone wants to get high, they will find a way to do it. Addiction is chronic, gets progressively worse without intervention, and has biological, social, psychological and spiritual elements. It also occurs regardless of the availability of substances, as seen by what we call "process" addictions, such as gambling, sex, food, and Internet addictions.

I also acknowledged in the article that sadly, here in Pennsylvania, Governor Tom Corbett's new budget is in agreement with this doomed approach of criminal justice approaches over treatment and education in dealing with our state's addiction problems.

It's estimated that our country spends over fifty billion dollars per year to wage the War on Drugs. Failed policies focus primarily on the reduction of the supply of drugs by carrying out paramilitary operations in other countries as well as on drug users here in the United States, combined with amplified law enforcement approaches involving tens of millions arrested, and many millions incarcerated for nonviolent acts since the war began. LEAP reports that after 40 million arrests and a trillion dollars spent to fight drug use, the number of those who use drugs has increased 2800 percent since 1970. We can't incarcerate our way out of drug problems.

Tragically, what’s not counted among these numbers are the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have died of overdoses, AIDS, hepatitis and other diseases, because the drug war blocked and even prohibited treating addiction to certain drugs as a health problem rather than a criminal one.

My involvement as an addictions counselor

My career as an addictions counselor (which coincidentally began shortly after the War on Drugs began) has focused on working with individuals and families on the "micro" level--drug "wars" that my clients and families deal with daily under their own roofs. I was aware of the wider "macro" problem of failed national drug policy throughout out my career by having visceral reactions of disgust from my inability to find quality treatment for my clients and my own family members, horror stories of insurance company abandonment of their subscribers by restricting/refusing treatment, high incarceration rates for drug use/possession, law enforcement using SWAT-like raids on drug users and their families, and chronically high crime rates.

I didn't know whether to laugh or scream at the government's ludicrous media campaigns of the Nixon-era's "this is your brain on drugs" and the Reagan-era's "just say no". However, I unwittingly remained a part of it while working within it, helping people in ways that I could. I took the obstacles for granted and just kept plugging away, one client, one family at a time.  I never connected the dots between the policy failure and the frustration and despair my clients and I often felt as we worked on resolving problems associated with the devastation of addiction and the inability to obtain quality care for a lethal illness.

Well, my head is now out of the sand, and I now clearly see the problem at the macro, systemic level. I feel the need to play more of a role at the macro level and have become active with national groups such as the DPA and LEAP and look forward to becoming more active locally. 

A Focus on Harm Reduction

I discovered that for me, a good way to keep my eye on the macro view while continuing to help my clients in their day-to-day struggles is to more fully embrace and expand my use of harm reduction approaches. Harm reduction is a philosophy focusing on exploring alternatives to the rigid prohibition of high-risk lifestyle choices. 

The basis of harm reduction philosophy is the acknowledgment that some people will always be engaged in behaviors that carry risks, like drug use, unsafe sex, and smoking.  Most people who come to see me for help are aware they have a drug and/or alcohol problem but not sure what to do about it or aren't ready to address it fully. Most can identify some negative consequences of their behavior and are motivated to reduce/eliminate such behaviors but aren't willing to eliminate the behavior altogether.

Also, instead of criminalizing these behaviors, harm reduction pursues compassion and a social justice, supporting the idea that people should not be denied health care and social services just because they take risks.

I believe that since risk is a universal part of life, and since change and recovery are processes with many stages, harm reduction is a needed part of public health programs.  Harm reduction focuses on what and how we provide information and support to those practicing risky behaviors in our community.  Because harm reduction policies avoid the huge barriers to public health associated with prohibition and abstinence, they may offer more effective and sustainable alternatives.

Harm reduction also is a huge stigma-buster since we are making addiction a health issue rather than a behavior that must be punished.

Harm reduction and teens

For some people, their addiction has reached a point where abstinence is necessary. For others who aren’t that far down the continuum of consequences, or for teenagers, who’s normal developmental tasks include challenging authority and risk-taking, starting at where they are currently at in the process and collaborating with them to set goals to begin reducing harm where they see it at the moment is an approach more likely to engage them in the process of change. Educating parents and their children with accurate information about drugs and risky behavior and offering compassionate, flexible approaches for intervening is what I strive to do.

A major concern I have about embracing harm reduction approaches, especially in my work with teens and young adults, is that this philosophy may be construed as condoning or even encouraging risky behavior. As I educated myself about harm reduction approaches and the pros and cons of various drug policies, I realized that this concern is part of my automatic parent-like protective response. It’s part of our human instinctive “fight/flight” reaction—to run away, freeze, or attack--that we get when we sense danger. Once I opened my mind to learning more and getting some facts and quality information, rationality prevailed and it informs me to offer interventions based on science, compassion, and respect for human rights.

Kids want honesty and information and the faith that they can make their own minds up. We often forget that we were once teens once. Honesty with our own childhood experiences will help us be more open to intervening appropriately with our own children.

I’ve made a commitment to learning more about what's needed to shift the focus from fighting a war on drugs to providing effective humane approaches and alternatives. I’ve joined DPA and LEAP and look forward to becoming involved locally. I encourage you to learn more about the failed drug policies and decide for yourself where you stand and whether it’s worth  joining the effort to reduce the needless pain and suffering caused by our country’s shameful drug policies.

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