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Last week, the Obama Administration released the 2014 National Drug Control Strategy which serves as the nation’s plan for reducing drug use and the consequences associated with drug use. His Administration has previously released three other strategies which all build on the foundation that education and awareness will decrease drug use.

Instead of focusing on punitive measures, the Administration wants to focus on treatment and education. We already know that addiction is a disease – not a moral failing. It can affect anyone at anytime in their life. Punishing drug users is not the answer. We need to help drug users get into treatment and to get therapy for their drug use. Or better yet, prevent people from ever using drugs through a combination of education and teachers others the early warning signs of drug use.

The newest Strategy focuses on four different points. The first point is to prevent drug use before it even begins through education. This makes a lot of sense. It’s easier to prevent drug abuse before someone is addicted. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), over 20 years of research has shown that prevention programs designed and tailored to meet the needs of a specific audience do work to prevent drug abuse. NIDA also provides a free booklet on their website with a list of examples of effective, research-based drug abuse prevention programs.

The second point listed is to expand access to treatment for people struggling with addiction. Right now, more than 23 million Americans are addicted to alcohol and drugs. That’s about one in every ten Americans over the age of 12. To put it in perspective, that number is roughly equal to the entire population of Texas. Although more than 23 million people need help, only about 11% receive treatment. Why? The cost of treatment can be staggering and many people lack insurance.

According to Dr. Kima Joy Taylor, Director of the Closing the Addiction Treatment Gap initiative, “Our society and our health care system have been slow to recognize and respond to addiction as a chronic, but treatable, condition. While change doesn’t happen overnight, if health care reform is implemented properly, millions of Americans will finally have insurance coverage for addiction treatment. This is a historic step toward a comprehensive, integrated approach to health care that includes treatment of addiction.”

The third point listed in the latest Strategy is to reform the criminal justice system to break the cycle of drug use, crime, and incarceration while protecting public safety. This might be the most important step listed. Over the past 40 years, Americans have spent around $1 trillion dollars on the drug war. However, the USA still has the world’s highest incarceration rate with 2.2 million Americans in jail. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a little bit less than half of federal prisoners are incarcerated for drug crimes.

Now, if you commit a crime to fund your drug habit, you still deserve to be punished for that crime. However, the funds spent on the drug war combined with the increase of prisoners mean that something needs to change. It’s evident that the current justice system is doing little to help reform prisoners who have drug addiction. It’s time to treat drug addiction as a public health issue – not a criminal issue.

The fourth – and last – point listed is to support Americans in recovery by lifting the stigma associated with those suffering or in recovery from substance use disorders. We need to change the idea that drug addicts are moral failures. That idea is simply not true. While it is a choice to use a drug or drink alcohol for the first few times, that choice quickly becomes a need once the user is addicted to the substance. Most people who use heroin didn’t start out that way. In fact, many heroin addicts start out with a legal prescription for painkillers. Maybe they had an injury or suffer from chronic pain. Whatever the case may be, those people quickly became hooked on the pills. Pills are expensive on the streets, so when the pills ran out the users searched for a cheaper alternative – heroin. People who are chemically dependent on prescription painkillers will get sick and suffer from serious withdrawal symptoms if they can’t find their drug.

The newest strategy to be implemented by the Obama Administration is unique because of the change of focus from punishing drug users to helping drug users. Here at the Cove Center for Recovery, we help drug users everyday by teaching them new coping mechanisms and addressing traumas that may have led to the initial urge to abuse a substance.