I do a recovery group with several college students on a regular basis and have a couple of young women who show up regularly and share freely. One of the first things I do is ask people in the group if they would like to share their story. As you might imagine, some people are hesitant to open up about their experiences with addiction so I often begin by sharing some small pieces of how addiction has impacted my life. I think that we can all relate in some way, even if we are not the person suffering from addiction. It is infinitely hard to watch someone you love struggle with this and extremely frustrating to be able to do nothing to help. I can relate to that, and I know in these times, most people can.
A young woman came to our first meeting and began telling her story. She talked about the time she had spent in jail. “I loved being in jail,” she said. She talked about how the pressure to use was lifted from her, how she got healthy and clean and made some decisions that changed her life. She reported that the only part she didn’t like about it was being separated from her children. This was an astounding statement to me. I have never forgotten it and have contemplated those words a lot. I have even used that statement when speaking with those still struggling with addiction on many occasions. Overwhelmingly, the response I get is, “Yeah, she got to be clean.” It was almost an automated response from nearly every single addict I’ve shared those words with.
While I am very proud of the young woman who will soon graduate from college, this troubles me. I think that it should trouble us all. When those in active addiction think, I get to go to jail and be clean, that is a problem. That is something, as a country, as a community, as a human being we should all be concerned about. Some of these people are the ones that make it out alive. They look forward to going to jail in order to recover. I think we can do better. Am I saying that we shouldn’t punish those who use or sell drugs for their part in a crime? No. What I’m saying is there are other ways to get this epidemic under control. If we started to dedicate the resources we use to “throw people in jail” to ways to help them recover. If we reserve incarceration for those who are bringing the drugs to our community, those who are profiting on the addiction of our residents perhaps we could start to make a small dent in the problem.
Today there are hundreds of thousands of addicts sitting in jail, going through withdrawal alone and without medical treatment. And we wonder why the problem is only getting bigger. We are punishing the wrong people. We can’t lock away the addict and let the producers go. They will only move on to the next addict, the next generation and we are losing an entire generation to addiction.