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Ending the ‘War on Drugs’ by changing how we understand addiction

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Ending the ‘War on Drugs’ by changing how we understand addiction

A corrections officer guides an inmate through a correctional facility

This article was originally published by Stand Together Trust.

After spending 50 years fighting the war on drugs through the criminal justice system, the results are in: Despite spending $46 billion in taxpayers' dollars every year and arresting millions of people, drug overdose death rates have climbed more than 280% from 1970 to today, and addiction and violence associated with drugs persist.  

"The purported goal of the War on Drugs is to reduce overdose, addiction, and violence," explains Christina Dent, founder and president of End It For Good, a nonprofit that receives funding from Stand Together Trust. "Yet, criminalizing drugs forces their manufacture, sale, and use to the black market and incentivizes the production of stronger, more concentrated compounds that are unregulated and carry a higher likelihood of overdose and violence."  

It's past time to consider a different approach to fighting drugs and addiction. For Christina, it was meeting a person with a substance abuse problem face to face that helped her to see a different way. 



Women who do drugs when they're pregnant must not love their children.

That was Christina's perspective when she first became a foster parent. Then she met Joanne.  

Christina had been the caretaker of Joanne's son Beckham since he was a newborn. All because of Joanne's prenatal drug use.  

During their first supervised visit at the child welfare office, Dent was suspicious of Joanne's affection for her son. Dent explains more in her Ted Talk: 

"I pulled up. Popped his little car seat out of the van. I turned around and there, sprinting across the parking lot in front of me was Joanne, with tears streaming down her face. She didn't look at me at all, she just covered her son with kisses." 

On its face, Christina's story sounds like an emotional reunion of a mother and son. But Christina admits she wondered things like: 

Is this real? 

Is she just trying to impress me? 

Why would she be using drugs if she really loved her son? 

What Christina didn't know at the time was that addiction is a disease. As she got to know Joanne, she learned that criminalizing her drug use would only likely fuel her addiction more. 

It's because of her experience with Joanne that Dent researched addiction and became convinced that the criminal justice system is not the right tool for addressing drug use.  

Eager to share what she had learned, Christina hosted discussions using Johann Hari's book Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. Hundreds of people started attending these gatherings. This inspired the creation of End It For Good, which is dedicated to changing the conversation about drugs. 

Inviting people to consider a health-approach to tackling drugs 

End It For Good invites people into conversations about how drug addiction is a disease and not one that can be solved by the criminal justice system.  

Ranarda Wright, a practicing licensed professional counselor and clinic director from Jackson, Mississippi, explains, "Trauma, relationships, and finances are some of the most frequent problems that people are trying to solve with drugs. This is why the criminal justice system doesn't work well to stop people's drug use. It adds more trauma, strained relationships, and financial hardship to a person's life." 

Though it's clear that society cannot keep doing the same thing and expect different results, changing the approach to drug abuse is going to require many people to confront deeply held beliefs about drug use.   

"People in your own community will be harmed today by a drug arrest, overdose death, or crime from the underground market – harm caused by drug prohibition. We're not pro-drug, we're pro-people," End It For Good explains. 

That's why the organization hosts welcoming, non-judgmental events that appeal to everyone from concerned citizens in a community to judges, mayors, district attorneys, law enforcement officers, pastors, and doctors. They believe that changed minds lead to saved lives and changed laws. 

"We call it the war on drugs. In reality, it's a war within each of us to reconcile what we know isn't working with what society tells us is the only answer -- the criminalizing and dehumanizing of people," says Christopher Freeze, a retired FBI Special Agent in Charge. "As a former federal law enforcement officer and executive, I've seen the devastation the war on drugs has had on our communities and the officers charged with fighting this war. The mission and work of End It For Good have brought a new and reasonable voice to the discussion that is focused on sharing ideas and information which can shift how we approach the problem and define outcomes." 

Advocating for approaches to drugs that prioritize life and the opportunity to thrive 

Given today's environment, many people are concerned that drug decriminalization will lead to more crime and that today's rising violence is a direct result of drug reform. In actuality, enforcing drug laws is often a significant waste of law enforcement time and attention better spent on preventing and solving violent and property crime. 

Retired New York City police officer Jillian Snider says in a recent report that the war on drugs has: " ... not only [been] ineffective in reducing [drug] use and sales, but the emphasis on street-level enforcement has contributed to an increase in negative police-citizen interactions, poor police community relationships and decreased police legitimacy. These issues, in turn, have created an environment in which police officers, too, have new fears." 

Rather than double down on decades of failed policy and countless lost lives and broken families by continuing to use the tools of punishment, we need to encourage alternative responses to drug use. Restrictions on drugs only drive drugs "underground" — through dealers in communities and on social media – further promoting violence. These black markets also propagate overdoses through uncontrolled substances.  

What if, instead of punishment, communities came alongside those suffering from addictions to help them through it?  

"My professional experience, as well as research on addiction, confirms that the most successful path out of addiction often includes deep relationships, a sense of life purpose, and healing from trauma," writes Dr. William Sansing, who has 25 years of experience as a disability policy advocate and substance use disorder professional.  

Importantly, this also lets law enforcement officers focus on violent offenders and property crime in communities – a win-win for addiction and public safety.  

And that's the same conclusion Christina came to the more she got to know Joanne and researched drug addiction.  

"I saw over time, and the more I got to know Joanne, that she is a mom like me. She loves her son, just as much as I love my three sons" Christina explains in her Ted talk. "My simple way of understanding drugs had met the real world and real people." 

The criminal justice system is being asked to solve a lot of societal problems right now -- it can't possibly solve all of them well if it remains overburdened.  More to the point, it was never built to solve social problems, but to protect public safety and defend our constitutionally recognized rights to life, liberty, and property. It's simply not the right tool for addressing the issue of people using drugs. 

Christina saw through her experience as a foster parent that putting Joanne in jail would be horrible not just for Joanne but for Beckham. The ramifications of that sort of trauma is only likely to fuel more addiction, not solve it. Inspired by her own change of heart about drugs, Christina is determined to help others change their minds and find truly effective solutions for ending drug addiction for good.  


End it for Good is supported by Stand Together Trust, which provides funding and strategic capabilities to innovators, scholars, and social entrepreneurs to develop new and better ways to tackle America’s biggest problems.

Learn more about Stand Together’s criminal justice efforts and explore ways you can partner with us

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