Addiction Isn’t A Crime, So Why Do We Treat Addicts Like Criminals?

Macro view of an urban person's hand on a chain link fence in De Nieuwe Stad
Mitchel Lensink / Unsplash

Drug addicts are the actual worst. My brother is a drug addict so I’m pretty confident in this assessment. They lie and cheat and steal and do god knows what else in the name of their addiction and everyone and everything in the crossfire is just collateral damage. Me and my family were collateral damage and, a while ago, I wrote this thing about it while in the middle of the storm. I hated him but loved him at the same time, it was an ugly moment. I ended that piece questioning something I always thought was a solid belief; I questioned if maybe all addicts just need to be thrown in jail and left there even though I don’t believe that. But, at that point, aside from death, jail seemed like the only option.

And it was.

That’s where he is now. And there’s this selfishness that overtook me when it happened; an almost relief. I remember thinking, at least we know where he is, at least we can have a break. Then you go visit and you get your fingers and eyes scanned and you go trough airport-level security to sit for an hour with someone who blew up their entire life, your entire life. And they look so small and so broken but then they start to look like the person you knew before and that’s where you start to remember what you believe in, where you remember that addicts, while the worst, are still just people.

I’ve always believed that drug addiction is an illness and should be treated as such- until I had to share my life with one and was worn down so much that I called the cops on him myself, I called ambulances on him, pulled needles out of him, screamed at him until my throat hurt and saw things I’ll probably never repeat to anyone ever. Then, fed up and tired, I resigned myself to the fact that jail was the only option. I hated myself for that, for going back on something I, still, truly believe, just because I couldn’t take dealing with him any more.

But that’s what happens, they push you to the brink on a personal level and so, is it any wonder that they’ve pushed the world to the brink too? You start to side with the people who claim they’re lost causes, who wash their hands of them. You kinda get why prisons are overpopulated with addicts; because it’s just fucking easier.

But that attitude is part of the problem.

Now, a few months removed and after seeing him look like my brother and not some vacant skeleton of a human, I realise that part of the reason jail felt like the only option outside of a funeral was because it was, and in all honesty, it shouldn’t be that way. There should be other options, better options available before you chuck someone in jail and lose the keys for a bit; but that isn’t the way our societies are crafted.

Now, I know there are other options, trust me, we researched them. we took him to doctor appointments, counselling appointments, suggested different rehab options and, at one point, he even went to one, but he left. There is nothing outside of jail that forces someone into institutionalisation and it is, on a personal level, exasperating and on a societal level, a fucking joke. We had people left and right telling us that ‘you can’t help someone who doesn’t want it.’ True. But does an addict want to go to jail? No. Does an addict end up there? Yes. So why not force them into somewhere with the resources to treat them?

I’m not looking to blame anyone for my brother’s choices, he did what he did to get where he is and he deserves punishment, but now, looking at possible release, the anxiety is creeping back in. He is not rehabilitated. He’s been sitting in cells with other drug addicts and criminals, worrying about jail politics and not worrying about and working on his issues. And when he does get out, whether that’s next week or in 5 years, those issues will still be there, untouched, just waiting for the right environment to spring to life again like an infection.

Jail isn’t there to rehabilitate, it is there to punish. I’m not saying that in the history of the world no one has ever bettered themselves after a stint in the slammer, that no one has ever taken it and made it into a positive. All I’m saying is, the majority of the time, those success stories are the minority and it seems like common sense to me that, to see more successes, something needs to change.

Not long before this stint in jail, for my brother, there was the first time in jail. He got put in a cell with an accused murderer and got strangled to the point that he died and had to be revived on the way to the hospital. Then he got out and sat there with marks wrapped around his neck and eyes burst to the point they were so red you couldn’t see white. He swore black and blue, like his skin was, that he’d never go back, that it was the wake up call he needed. Not even two weeks later, I walked in to the house and found him passed out on the couch, an empty pack of pills on the coffee table.

I would say that I couldn’t believe it, but at that point, I could. I wasn’t even shocked. I just made sure he was breathing and positioned so that if he vomited he wouldn’t choke and then took the dog walkies. And that is what me and my family are worried about now, something like that happening again and not being surprised by it. Because I wouldn’t be and this is why I think change needs to happen to the way we, in most western societies, handle addiction and mental illness in general.

It’s like going to the dentist for a filling. Typically, the dentist doesn’t just fill the hole and send you on your way, they have to drill away all the decay before they fill it otherwise it’ll become a festering abscess, a bigger problem than it was in the first place. You ask almost anyone and they’ll tell you what a drain addicts are on society, what a waste of space they are, how useless and helpless they are and, they aren’t wrong. But they get that way because there is no infrastructure, no funding in place to help chip away at the decay, they just get left to rot and become a bigger problem

There needs to be a marriage of sorts between the judicial system and the healthcare system. With the way our laws are structured, drug addicts are first and foremost, criminals. And I get it, I do. They steal and lie and cheat and a lot of times, they deserve punishment (like my brother did), but these behaviours are symptoms of their addiction, an illness. What if, in conjunction with that punishment there was access to proper, holistic rehabilitation, to mental health care? What if they were treated first and foremost as unwell? Maybe we wouldn’t be lumbered with a population of people who seem to be stuck on the prison revolving door.

Because that’s my biggest fear for my brother: that he’ll end up on that revolving door, unable to get off, becoming a statistic that fell through the cracks created by the flaws in our judicial and healthcare systems. And I assume, it’s a fear held by so many people around the world who have had to watch someone go through addiction, and then get dragged along for the ride. That’s where I’m coming at this from; I’m not saying they are just poor blameless little souls who are misunderstood. As the old cliché goes, you do the crime, you do the time. But how about we start giving mental illness the respect it deserves so that people who suffer can get the right kind of help and not simply be set up for failure? Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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