Some might argue that society’s approach to the drug problem should be to lock up the offenders, users and dealers alike. Others, meanwhile, might argue that the approach should be to cease making drug use an offense at all.
So which is the answer?
From where U.S. Attorney David Hickton sits, the proper approach really is from two ends, the supply side and, more importantly, the demand side.
And that, he said, means emphasizing education and prevention and steering people into treatment, but while continuing to vigorously prosecute dealers. There’s a bright line to be painted, he said, between sick addicts and criminal drug traffickers.
“I believe that in the context of my responsibilities, it’s important to work on both the supply side, where we prosecute drug traffickers, and work with community stakeholders on the demand side to do a better job of taking care of people so they don’t become purchasers of drugs,” said Hickton, who represents the Western District of Pennsylvania.
“We have a massive community education effort in front of us, and we have a huge public health crisis,” he said.
And to be sure, addiction is a health problem, not a moral failing, he said, one that needs to be taken out of the shadows.
“This is a big problem. And when we get it out of the shadows, we’re going to once and for all be able to let everybody stop dealing with it in the dark and with shame. Once we do that … then there’s not going to be a market for some of these drug dealers.”
Hickton’s approach is reflected in federal drug policy, as outlined in the 2013 National Drug Control Strategy, which notably recognizes that addiction is not a moral failing.
“Decades of scientific study show that addiction is a disease of the brain that can be prevented and treated,” it states. “While smart law enforcement efforts will always play a vital role in protecting communities from drug-related crime and violence, we cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem.”
It advocates a multipronged approach emphasizing prevention of drug use through education; greater access to treatment; and reformation of the criminal justice system, locking the revolving door of addiction, arrest and reincarceration.
For his part, Hickton has put together an advisory group called the U.S. Attorney’s Working Group on Addiction: Prevention, Intervention, Treatment and Recovery. It was formed to develop solutions to western Pennsylvania’s opiate overdose epidemic.
The committee has begun meeting, and Hickton said he hopes that it will have something concrete to show for its effort sometime in the next 60 days.
His committee isn’t the only one working on the problem.
On Friday, Gov. Tom Corbett announced he had put together a task force to look at the state’s opioid addiction problem. It’s being overseen by Gary Tennis, secretary of the state’s Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, and it’s to have some recommendations ready by September.
“As a former prosecutor, I’ve seen too many lives ruined because of addiction,” Corbett said in a statement announcing the task force. “This is a problem that cuts across geographic, social and economic boundaries. It affects families from rural areas, to suburban areas, to our cities. And it is doing so at an increasingly alarming rate.
“We need to educate our citizens, coordinate the enforcement of our laws and engage our communities to address this issue,” Corbett said.
There is a financial incentive for doing so — it’s expensive to lock people up. And there are a lot of people with addiction who are locked up.
“Prisons hold a disproportionate number of society’s drug abusers. Approximately 50 percent of state prisoners meet the criteria for a diagnosis of drug abuse or dependence; however, only 10 percent of prisoners receive drug treatment,” according to a paper written by researchers at Temple University and the nonprofit research institute RTI International. In the paper, researchers examined the long-term outcome of diverting convicts facing reincarceration to community-based treatment programs.
To do that, it took the 2004 population of people in state prisons, and using computer modeling, projected lifetime outcomes, given varying chances of being placed into treatment instead of being imprisoned.
After running the numbers through the model, researchers calculated that the criminal justice system would save $4.8 billion under one scenario and $12.9 billion in costs under the other.
“These savings are driven by reductions in crimes committed, which translate into lower policing, adjudication, and incarceration costs,” researchers wrote.
“The diversion scenarios demonstrate that avoided incarceration costs are a substantial portion of the cost savings. Importantly, these are conservative estimates of the cost savings to the criminal justice system (although perhaps politically more realistic) because they assume that community-based treatment costs are paid by the criminal justice system.”
Locally, District Attorney Pat Dougherty said he, too, recognizes a need to treat the addicts differently than the traffickers.
Sometimes, though, it’s not always exactly clear who the dealer is and who the user is. In fact, they’re often both — a user whose selling as a means to support the addiction, he said.
For Dougherty, it’s a question of who truly is profiting from the deal.
“Where you have to draw the line,” he said, “you have to see who is actually making the money off the drug transaction.”
Sometimes, though, those people are hard to prosecute. Dougherty said authorities are finding that the higher level dealers are choosing to be mobile, traveling in from other areas. They don’t live in the areas they’re selling, he said, and so instead they’ll flop at the homes of their customers for short periods of time.
And when it comes time to deal a deal, they’ll dispatch someone else to execute the transaction.
“You never see them getting their hands dirty, for a lack of a better term,” he said. “Essentially it’s the Wizard of Oz, the guy behind the curtain pulling all the strings.”
Despite the talk of working with people suffering from an addiction, Hickton and Dougherty each stressed that their comments shouldn’t be taken to mean they are going easy on dealers.
Hickton, for one, said he remains committed to identifying every criminal drug organization he can find and disrupting them through prosecution.
“These are criminal business enterprises, and I am giving no quarter in our effort to disrupt them after we identify them and prosecute the criminals,” he said.
Dougherty, meanwhile, said he is willing to give leeway to addicts only to an extent.
“At a point in everyone’s life you come to a point where there are consequences to your actions,” he said.
Although some are ready to accept help and change, others are not, he said. And may never be.
“Some will never be ready to give up that lifestyle, to give up the addiction,” he said. “In those situations we have to give people every option to get the help they need. But ultimately, if they’re not willing to do that, if they’re repeat offenders, then all bets are off. We have to protect society.”