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Keeping Away From Criminalization

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Sarah Sweeney
September 25, 2019


In many cities across America, addiction is a very real issue that is impacting lives every second of every day. It tears families apart and tortures the human spirit, separating a person from themselves and those in their lives who would otherwise support them. Living and working in the Seattle area, this reality has become all too clear, especially as a service provider in the community. Just two weeks ago I was getting off the bus heading in to the office, and noticed a man firing up his crack pipe… it was eight o’clock in the morning.

Situations such as these, and recognizing the increasing prevalence or visibility of drug use in public, are at the heart of this social issue. Drug addiction and homelessness bring to mind the question, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Are drug addicts homeless, or are the homeless drug addicts? This question is too simple for such a complex collection of issues, and merely scratches the surface of such a large iceberg below the surface of vulnerability in our streets. It is very true that not all people who use or are addicted to drugs are homeless, nor are all those who are homeless using or addicted to drugs. These are simple stereotypes and stigmas created by those who do not understand the root causes of either issue.

In Seattle particularly, there have been efforts made to connect people to services and decrease the frequency of criminal convictions stemming from actions performed while intoxicated, for those addicted to illicit drugs. One such effort, the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, has been shown to reduce the recidivism of low-level criminal offenders and instead offer a treatment based alternative. This program was additionally designed to decriminalize public drug use and prostitution, offering alternatives to those who would otherwise spend time behind bars and have on their record criminal charges that would affect their ability to obtain employment, housing and potentially other social service benefits available to them.

According a Seattle Times article, efforts at addressing these issues must focus on preventive measures that tackle drug addiction at the root causes. We must fund primary education and open doors to job training in order to sustain progress in low-barrier access to community resources that combat drug addiction. We must also minimize access to street thugs who provide these damaging drugs to vulnerable people on the streets.

So how did we get here?

Often times, those engaged in drug addiction are victims of trauma, have been exposed to substances as an infant, have lost job opportunities or have experienced the loss of housing or the breaking up of families at the hands of various social issues. Homelessness can also be tied to similar root causes, and many times not at the fault of the victim. Homelessness could be a side effect of unintended consequences of the market, disability, injury or fluctuations of life’s events such as divorce and children aging out of foster care.  

A big issue that has become fairly prevalent in regards to addiction is the over prescription of opioids by doctors. This has led to increased addiction rates and has acted as a gateway drug for harder substances such as heroin and cocaine to address chronic pain issues as detailed in this CDC report. Medical providers who are drawn in by financial rewards or kickbacks might look the other way when writing prescriptions for clients in search of narcotic drugs to feed their addiction. Many times in the cases of patients who undergo serious medical interventions (such as surgeries) or older patients experiencing chronic pain, doctors willingly prescribe pain medications to treat the presenting problem. If not monitored closely, patients may become addicted and therefor turn to these harder drugs to meet the needs of their addiction, especially if their providers attempt to titrate their prescriptions.

Where do we go from here?

To get ahead of the drug addiction trend in any of our communities, we must address the issue head on. Prioritizing funding for intervention programs, early childhood education and funding job training or employment opportunities, as well as decriminalizing drug related offenses is the key to a more successful future in our communities. There are so many vulnerable children and adults who are engaged in substance use and abuse systems, and without appropriate interventions we will never solve the problem. Without closer monitoring of narcotic prescription writing and titrating pain medication programs, we won’t ever address the issue of chronic pain management. Clients are at risk of being left in the lurch of addiction and pain issues. We must act fast to ensure a successful future for those who are at greatest risk.

Author: Sarah Sweeney is a professional social worker and recent graduate of Seattle University’s Master of Public Administration program in Washington State.  She may be contacted at [email protected]


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