The War on Drugs: Treating Addiction as a Disease, Not a Crime

By Jim Woods

The war on drugs has been raging for more than four decades with no clear end in sight.1 Despite the best efforts of law enforcement, the US opioid epidemic continues. The statistics are overwhelming, with drug overdose expected to be the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50.2

Doctor taking notesDrug abuse affects all of us, and this problem is not getting any better. Because of this, the question must be asked: Is the War on Drugs a structural problem? The hard truth is that when drug use is a crime, people go to jail. As of 2014, over 2.2 million people are in our nation’s prisons and jails.3 While they are not all there on drug-related charges, obviously, the rise in incarceration rates coincides with the enforcement of tougher drug policies connected to the war on drugs.

When an individual leaves jail, he faces additional challenges finding new employment as he now has a criminal record. For example, let’s say an employer has a choice between two candidates with similar qualifications. One has a criminal background and the other candidate does not. The individual with the criminal record has a distinct disadvantage. When an individual is not able to find employment, he is more likely to participate in criminal behavior again, which often includes drugs. This cycle of crime is pervasive and in many cases leads to more drug use. It is clear that treating drug addiction as a crime is not working. What if another approach is used? What happens when drug addiction is treated as a disease?

The Treatment of Drug Addiction

In 2001, the government of Portugal decriminalized the possession or personal use of all drugs.4 This change meant that if an individual was found using a drug such as heroin or cocaine, he may receive a fine or be asked to participate in community service — No longer would an individual be jailed for drugs.

That law was enacted 15 years ago. In the time since this legal change, the number of adults who have done drugs in the past year has decreased steadily. In addition, drug-related death rates in Portugal are the second-lowest in the European Union.5 Instead of government resources being directed toward the prosecution of drug offenses and building new facilities, these funds can be allocated toward drug treatment programs.

Other countries such as Uruguay, the Netherlands and Denmark have also adapted laws that focus on smaller fines instead of jail time for offenders.6 Some countries have even opened facilities to help those with their drug addiction. It is important to note that the drug-related results from other countries are not as conclusive as the results documented in Portugal. However, the changes made in other countries are more recent, so new information will be reported over time.

Drug Addiction Is a Disease

Despite any legal changes, drug addiction is a chronic disease just like heart disease, cancer or type II diabetes.7 Often, treatment enables individuals to feel better and live healthier lives. However, when a chronic disease is ignored, it usually worsens. Drug addiction needs intense treatment the same way cancer needs intense treatment. The viewpoint that a person is weak or lacks willpower due to drug addiction is a stigma that is simply not true.

Sadly, the attitude that drug abuse is a moral or ethical failure often leads to more drug abuse. Instead of an individual coming forward with his problem, the drug abuse continues in isolation. When someone is isolated and not participating socially with other people, these conditions often lead to loneliness and depression.8 Once an individual is depressed, this condition has a strong connection with their drug abuse and can even act as a trigger.9 Depression increases the chances of drug abuse, as well as serious injuries that may result from it such as overdose.

Move Past Drug Addiction

Whenever an individual struggles with addiction and depression, or any mental illness, it is always a good idea to participate in a professional treatment program that addresses both conditions. This kind of treatment ensures that whole healing is possible. If you or a loved one struggles with drug abuse, please know you are not alone. You can get the help you need today. You can move forward today and find healing from addiction.


1War on Drugs.” History, October 29, 2017.

2 Katz, Josh. “The First Count of Fentanyl Deaths in 2016: Up 540% in Three Years.” The New York Times, September 2, 2017.

3 Williams, Michael K. “The War On Drugs Is A War On People.” CNN, September 22, 2016.

4Drug Decriminalization In Portugal: Setting the Record Straight.” Transform, October 24, 2017.

5 Baer, Drake. “6 Incredible Things That Happened When Portugal Decriminalized All Drugs.” Business Insider, April 26, 2016.

6 Graham, Georgia. Drug Laws Around The World—Does Anyone Get it Right? The Telegraph, October 24, 2017.

7Addiction is a Chronic Disease.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, October 22, 2017.

8 Vann, Madeline. “Dealing With Depression and Loneliness.” Everyday Health, October 24, 2017.

9 Zwolinski, Richard. “Depression and Substance Abuse: The Chicken or the Egg?Psych Central, October 24, 2017.