I’m in Recovery and I Fight to Reform Our Drug Laws: It’s a Natural Fit
It's vital that those of us who have experienced addiction have our voices heard in the drug policy debate. And the fact that we've quit using drugs ourselves doesn't mean that we should support a blanket policy of prohibition.
I used drugs for 10 years before entering what I hope was my last treatment program in 2008.
From the very beginning I struggled to control my intake of substances and failed miserably: I was almost always a daily, problematic user and my drug of choice progressed from alcohol to cocaine, and then to shooting heroin and crack, until it became impossible to maintain any semblance of a normal life. After numerous treatment stays, starting when I was 16 years old, and thanks to a fellowship that saved my life, I haven’t used a drug since May 18, 2008.
My addiction inspired a cycle of self-hatred, shame and suicidal thoughts. Recovery has given me access to a life I never thought was available to me and that I didn’t even know I wanted.
About four years ago, I re-enrolled in law school and took a course on public health law. At some point the topic of syringe access programs as an effective means to reduce the spread of blood-borne diseases came up and, for obvious reasons, I took an extra interest.
As most people who inject drugs can probably attest, no one uses a dirty or dull needle if a new one is available. If our laws facilitated better access to sterile syringes, fewer people would re-use needles, fewer people would contract HIV and hepatitis C, and fewer people would be forced to suffer what are unnecessary permanent and tragic consequences of an already devastating illness.
This class inspired me to channel my personal experiences into policy advocacy, as I realized the huge and meaningful impact that better drug laws could have.
Limited syringe access is only one example of how current policies reinforce a host of social and economic inequities, perpetuate stigma and act as barriers to treatment, recovery and other harm reduction services.
I suffered consequences, legal and otherwise, as the result of my addiction. But none of these consequences helped me quit. I didn’t stop using drugs because I was tired of getting arrested—I stopped using drugs because there was not enough dope in the world that would make me feel the way I needed to feel, and because of that I woke up every day wanting to die.
Ultimately, people pay for the gross miscalculations of the state and federal government with their lives. Those of us in recovery—or still in active addiction—know this better than anyone.
My experience in the class also led me to question and reject the utility of drug criminalization in general.
Prohibition clearly posed problems for me in active addiction: I was arrested and spent time in jail, I put myself in dangerous situations on a daily basis, and in order to procure drugs I engaged in risky behaviors that could have cost me my life.
Despite the enormous destruction that illegal substances wreaked on my life, I cannot support a blanket policy of prohibition: Drug use and addiction are not questions of morality to be dealt with by the criminal justice system—which is built on principles of punishment and assumes that people rationally weigh the benefits of their actions against potential consequences. With respect to using drugs, those who suffer from addiction are unable to engage in this process.
Scientists often characterize chemical dependence, popularly termed addiction, by a disruption of neuron activity in the brain’s reward pathway, a dysregulation that makes it difficult, if not impossible, for those who are dependent to simply stop using.
Although the exact causes of this dysregulation are unknown, and it is not yet possible to predict who will become dependent and who will not, studies indicate that there are measurable differences between addicted and non-addicted users and that the latter have either lost meaningful choice over drug use, or else the ability to control their use is substantially impaired.
These claims accurately mirror my own experience: I used to feel like I needed heroin so badly that I would die if I couldn’t have it. It’s what I imagine it would feel like to be tied to a chair, unbelievably thirsty, with a glass of water sitting five feet in front of you.
I also suffered a fair amount of consequences, legal and otherwise, as the result of my addiction. But none of these consequences helped me quit. I didn’t stop using drugs because I was tired of getting arrested—I stopped using drugs because there was not enough dope in the world that would make me feel the way I needed to feel, and because of that I woke up every day wanting to die. It was either kill myself or try something different.
Criminalization does not provide an incentive for those who are dependent to stop, because we’re not necessarily guided by consequences in the way that other people are. And despite the fact that addicted people are involved with the majority of the harms associated with drug use, we are actually a very small minority of the drug using population.
Most people who try drugs—even heroin and cocaine—use responsibly, do not become addicted and eventually stop on their own. Why do we care what they’re doing?
Criminalization also doesn’t seem to deter people from trying drugs to begin with—going by the simple fact that the vast majority of Americans experiment with alcohol and illegal drugs at some point in their lives. Most avoid becoming dependent for no reason other than they’re lucky.
Although exceptions exist, people who have personal experience with all types of drug use are too often left out of policy debates. If they are involved, they’re sometimes hesitant to use these experiences in advocating for change. A host of nuanced reasons could explain this: Stigma is one answer, as well as the fact that some of us subscribe to a method of recovery that eschews political involvement on a group level.
But the importance of our participation cannot be overstated. Those who embrace recovery through a host of different channels have first-hand knowledge of the laws, treatments and policies that need support and a distinct, relevant and valuable perspective to offer.
I believe that I was able to stop using drugs in spite of the system—not because of it. The more policy changes that those of us in recovery can inspire, the more people will have access to the same opportunities to get better that we were gifted with.
Elizabeth Thompson is a lawyer who is a Policy Coordinator in the New Jersey office of the Drug Policy Alliance.
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