The Neglected Disease

America has been one of the most influential countries of the past 100 years. We’ve industrialized a continent, left our footprints on the moon, and established one of the greatest societies ever seen by man. Our progression seems steady and unwavering. Unfortunately, not everything is as it appears. America has several faults, most of which are subjects of our nightly debates, but some are missed and neglected until they can no longer be ignored. Of these numerous neglected diseases, substance addiction towers over all the others.

Addiction is defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary as having a compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming drug. In America there are over 23 million people who are addicted to alcohol or illicit drugs. Of those 23 million people, less than 10% actually receive any sort of treatment; the rest are left to suffer and some likely rot in jail. And the numbers continue to rise. Since 2000, the number of drug overdoses has more than tripled, and in some areas, even quadrupled.

In our society, there is a stigma to addiction; we think that those who suffer lack willpower or morals to overcome their problems. In reality, addiction is a chronic brain disease that causes compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. Despite our scientific advancements, we continue to treat the addicted as criminal and flood our prisons and waste millions of dollars (United States spent $600 million on locking up criminals involved in drug related crimes in 2013) on their incarceration instead of using the money to cure their disease. Our investments can be put to better use to create better, productive citizens, rather than felons.

Not only is the problem a moral and economic one, it is also a health problem. Across the boards, drug use and drug related deaths continue to rise. Heroin usage and deaths have quadrupled since the year 2000, and other illicit drug use and deaths have more than tripled.

The American people could take a few notes from a country like Portugal. In 2001, Portugal decriminalized the personal possession of all illicit drugs. Note that they did not make any drugs legal and the sale of drugs would still be illegal. This method now allowed those who are addicted to be able to seek help without the fear of being jailed. The government also used the opportunity to establish better addiction centers to help its citizens. Since the introduction of these laws, the country has seen dramatic drops in addiction rates and drug overdoses according to a study performed by Transform, an organization from the U.K. dedicated to reducing the volume of drug usage. The citizens of Portugal are now able to enjoy a healthier and safer country.

The issue of addiction can no longer be ignored. With the rising rates of addictions and the amount of money being wasted on incarcerating the addicted, it is unacceptable to continue the neglection of this disease. Something has to change.