Of the many ways in which culture contributes to addiction—media portrayal, brand promotion by the pharmaceutical and alcohol industries, poverty, peer pressure among adolescents, and the widespread availability of pain medications, to name a few—the main societal factor involves the ongoing emphasis on criminalization of and incarceration for behavior that should instead be treated as a behavioral and medical health issue.

The net effect of the trillion-dollar “war on drugs” is that we have the highest incarceration rate in the world, with over 2 million people in jail or prison. In 2010, more than half of federal prisoners were incarcerated for drug-related offenses, and even with the nation trending toward a more liberal posture regarding marijuana, the first decade of this century, from 2000 to 2010, showed a 33% increase in federal drug charges resulting in imprisonment.

Here are just a few of the negative effects of incarceration:

  • It places the individual beyond any available means of rehabilitation
  • It exposes the individual to a criminal culture, usually violent, that forces him or her to adapt in ways that are not conducive to integration in open society
  • It leaves the individual frustrated, fearful, and angry, with minimal possibilities and high hurdles to face on release—a certain recipe for relapse (assuming imprisonment even enforced abstinence)

There is a growing trend toward the view that the money and effort being spent on the “war on drugs” could be more effectively channeled into prevention and treatment. The huge amount of resources wasted on the current paradigm could instead support a new one of education, medical intervention, job training, community policing, and a host of social programs that would implement harm reduction, treatment, youth activities, and community programs in order to weaken the attraction to drugs in the first place, thus taking the power out of the marketplace.

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