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We need to reframe the way we address addiction. As a society, we stigmatize those who struggle with addiction and shame them for their choices, vilifying them and leaving them to their own devices. However, more and more evidence points towards addiction being a disease, something that initially may have been the person’s choice but is now controlling their life. Drugs alter our brain chemistry in ways that change our impulse controls and rewards centers, sometimes on a permanent level; drug addiction is known as a ‘relapsing disease’ because people who have undergone treatment for drug use have a greater risk for returning to the drug, even after decades of sobriety. So how do we readdress the issue while attacking the problem as a disease rather than as a lifestyle choice or moral failing?

In 2014, approximately 21.5 million Americans over the age of 12 suffered from a substance use disorder. A lot of people raise the question, “Why should we help these people? They chose this life and refuse to get better, so we should let them be.” The simple answer is that drug addiction affects more than just the person afflicted. High rates of drug addiction translate to higher rates of crime, higher healthcare costs, and higher poverty rates as well. The use of illicit drugs as well as prescription opioids cost health care $11 billion and $26 billion respectively each year, and together cost the country more than $271 billion dollars annually.

Per capita, the United States has the highest incarceration rate of any other nation in the world at 716 per 100,000 people; we represent 5% of the global population, but play home to more than 25% of the world’s prison population. Between 60-80% of these inmates we house are dealing with a substance abuse disorder. However, treatment once again appears to be a better solution for these prisoners; studies show that offering drug-addicted prisoners treatment while incarcerated reduced later rates of arrest by 40% and reduced future drug use by 50-60% as compared to those who faced sentences without treatment options.

Skeptics also like to argue that the decision to begin using drugs was the person’s individual choice, so it’s their own fault that they’ve fallen victim to addiction. However, when you think about that in a greater context, many other common diseases should fall under that some “choice” category. People who develop lung cancer from years of smoking chose to light up that first cigarette. People who develop obesity related complications due to poor diet and lifestyle choices were in control of that decision to eat and live how they do. And like the foods you eat can change your gut bacteria and smoking cigarettes can cause lung cancer and emphysema, using drugs alters your brain chemistry and quickly takes hold of the user, inhibiting their ability to just stop using.

When Richard Nixon declared a War on Drugs in June of 1971, he effectively criminalized drug use and thus, criminalized those who used the drugs. In the following decades, this pattern of blame continued to grow. Now, in 2017, it’s time to change our narrative and change the way that we view addiction as a whole so we can reframe the way we address the issue.