Addiction is a health issue that deserves a health-based response

September 18, 2020

Substance use disorders and addiction have been recognized as health conditions by the American Medical Association for more than 30 years, but in Oregon we still treat addiction as a crime.

Oregon is in the midst of a drug addiction crisis that is killing people every day. As medical doctors, we are on the front lines of this epidemic. We see how addiction wreaks havoc on our patients’ physical health, mental well-being and the ability to live full, meaningful lives.

We see the toll addiction takes on families and communities. We see the pain of loss when addiction claims lives. We sit in clinic offices and hospital rooms with people every day who feel hopeless, knowing how challenging it can be to find a way out.

Oregon’s current approach to drug addiction often involves arresting and jailing someone for possession of even a small amount of drugs, rather than connect them with support and services to help them get well. While in jail, some patients undergo excruciating detox, without initiation of evidence-based treatments for their use disorders.

While this practice is cruel and could be argued on moral grounds, it is also ineffective. It may be tempting to make the argument that incarceration could serve as a gateway to treatment for people with addictions, but this has not been the case. In fact, incarceration for addiction exposes people to the harms of jail — increased HIV and hepatitis C rates, decreased access to housing and jobs, and increased risk of overdose after release — without improving rates of drug use or successful recovery.

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