One of the biggest policy mistakes of American healthcare has been the incredibly ill-informed War On Drugs, signed into law by Richard Nixon in 1971, criminalizing the possession and use of many kinds of substances, addictive or not. The policy has increased a stigma associated with people suffering from substance use disorders from finding addiction treatment in New Jersey and other states.
While the criminality hasn’t completely changed, it’s clear that there are some barriers to the stigma finally falling, nearly fifty years later. In Connecticut, inmates who are in need of treatment for heroin and opioid use disorders, will be given an option for drug rehabilitation inside of prison and includes some of the more recent medication assisted treatment (MAT) options such as buprenorphine, a well documented medication that assists with curbing withdrawal symptoms and cravings that inevitably follow a person who quits using opiates and opioids. One of the promised purposes of prison is rehabilitation so that a person who serves time can be released back into society to live peacefully with other citizens, and so this development is definitely a step closer to meeting that stated goal.
The stigma left behind from public policy has been a long battle of the medical, psychiatry and psychological fields of study and practice. Even today, many practicing doctors have internalized their bias towards people suffering from substance use disorder, often citing the classic go-to dismissal of the complexity of the problem with the common phrase, ‘they made a choice, now they have to live with the consequences’.
The issue is never this cut and dry, especially with the explosion of people finding themselves in the throes of addiction from medications prescribed by their physician for, a typical example, pain management. It’s becoming more obvious that being a ‘hooligan’ or ‘failed person’ is rarely the entire story of why a person becomes addicted to a substance. When put into context with the stigma surrounding addiction, it’s no wonder that many people will try to hide it and avoid finding rehab in New Jersey and other states.
This is not to say that some people do make bad choices, but as the fields of study interested in uncovering the mechanics of addiction advance their understanding of how it changes behavior as well as how it manifests, the idea of ‘choice’ being the sole factor involved in whether someone is addicted or not becomes ever diminished in the grand scheme of all of the contributing parts of the illness. Substance use disorder killed more people in 2018 than automobile accidents while the entirety of people suffering from addiction was just 1/15th of the total number of drivers, making the issue of changing stigma to properly address the situation one of extreme immediacy and for prisoners to have access to treatment is a sign of a culture change that can actually meet the challenge.