Sally Davies is the chief medical officer for England, and in a recent interview on BBC3, she stated that she did not believe that drug addiction should be considered a criminal issue. She discussed how misguided it was to treat people who have a medical condition as if they are criminals. Sally Davies believes that the perception of drug addiction in society does a great deal of harm, preventing people from getting the help they need.
The idea that addiction is due to being weak-willed or a bad person was debunked over a hundred years ago, yet the perception that addicts are evil doers persist. This is why there is pressure put on the government to treat these people like criminals; and the government seems to have no problems with complying with this. The evidence that addiction is due to physical changes in the body is beyond dispute, yet the public perception remains the same. Treating addicts as criminals makes as much sense as treating cancer patients like criminals.
There is now a very long history of treating people addicted to drugs as criminals, and one thing that is obvious is that this approach does not work. All it does is drive the problem underground, making individuals feel too ashamed to ask for help. It also means that these people are then exploited by real criminals – those individuals who make their living by selling illegal drugs.
If people admit to a drug problem, it could have serious consequences on their future. The reality is that most drug users are able to hide this abuse for a long time. They are highly motivated to do this because they know that it would impact their career and status within their family and community if the word got out. It can also mean that people are very reluctant to ask for help because they do not want to be tarnished with stigma of being considered a drug addict.
When most people talk about drug addiction, they usually have illegal substances like heroin, ecstasy, and cocaine in mind. They forget that alcohol and nicotine are also drugs, and that these substances cause far more damage than the illegal ones. The consequences of alcohol addiction in particular are extremely high, not only for the individual but also for that person’s loved ones and society as a whole. Yet there is far more willingness in the public to treat alcoholism as a medical problem than there is for illegal drugs.
The myth of the person addicted to drugs is that of one who is dangerous and living on the edges of society. The reality is that the majority of people with this type of problem go unnoticed. For all outward appearances, this individual may appear to be doing very well in life. They may have a good job and be a respected member of the community. Many of them will never have any dealings with criminals because they abuse medications that are prescribed by their doctor.
People who have never been addicted to drugs find it difficult to understand how other humans could fall into this trap. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, they blame the addicted person for making bad choices. This view is hardly surprising when even the government treats people with addiction problems as if they were criminals. Hopefully people like Sally Davies will be able to sway this unhelpful attitude and reaction to the growing addiction problem in society.