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Minor Crimes, Major Savings

For some Americans, sympathizing with people incarcerated for drug use may seem like a provocative concept. However, decades of harmful consequences from the so-called “War on Drugs,”— stretching police forces, overwhelming the criminal justice system, straining our prisons, entrenching the underclass, and costing taxpayers an estimated $41.3 billion annually —threatens to disrupt this traditional, commonly-held approach to drug addiction.

The idea that Americans support the status quo of criminalizing drug addiction is itself a myth—national polls reflect that most Americans, in nearly every demographic group, now favor treatment of drug addiction over prosecution of drug charges. Just last week voters in California overwhelmingly passed of Proposition 47 which changed six low-level nonviolent drug possessions and petty theft crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. 

As this attitude shift gains momentum, it is vital that the shadowy image of a common criminal be replaced with the reality of an actual human suffering from an actual disease. The trend of shifting perceptions is beginning to take root in tangible ways, though tragically as the exception, not the rule. In some communities that have been so ravaged with mass incarceration, drug addiction is now justly being viewed as a matter of public health as opposed to “America’s public enemy number one,” as Richard Nixon infamously labeled it in the 1971 press conference that ushered in what we now call the War on Drugs.

Jeremy Bradford, a former corporal in the marines, recalls when he was a "preppy black guy in Armani." Over the years, he traded one label for another: a social user of cocaine at nightclubs, to merely a “smoker” of crack, until he found himself on a mattress under the freeway, unable to escape the label of “crackhead,” which he had long struggled to rationalize as something separate from himself.

Misti Barrickman, interviewed in the new short film series OverCriminalized, started taking Oxycontin for her scoliosis. When she continued to suffer from extreme pain, she ultimately turned to heroin after crippling withdrawals and an unsuccessful search for more prescription medication. This would become a battle with drug addiction and continual incarceration that lasted the next nine years of her life. Caught in an endless cycle between jail and the tent where she lived, she would be put on a year long waiting list for methadone treatment, from which she would be subsequently disqualified after each arrest.

Barrikman and Bradford both went through the motions of dozens of arrests, without once being given the opportunity to get well. Finally, Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, offered them an alternative to another jail visit. In Seattle, people incarcerated for drug offenses now have the option to circumvent the court system altogether, and get treatment. LEAD was instrumental in both Barrickman’s and Bradford’s recovery from addiction and perpetual incarceration, and proof that those suffering from drug addiction often have the will the recover, but the lack of means and lack of social services is what overwhelmingly seals their fate.

“LEAD is a harm-reduction program, and if they do choose to be in the LEAD program they will receive individualized case services—whether it be substance abuse treatment, housing, or job training—with an understanding that breaking addiction, which can last for decades, is not going to be an overnight process,” says Mark Cooke, an ACLU Policy Advocate.

LEAD and other programs like it embody a vital reversal of attitude and approach to drug addiction.  Bradford is now referred to as a “client”—his newest label. One which he far prefers to “crackhead”. “People don’t really care about their story,” says Tony Kagochi, a LEAD caseworker, of his clients. “So respecting them and giving them dignity increases the likelihood of change.”

The success of LEAD, the reduction of criminalizing drug-offenses, and the conceptual lifting of blame from people suffering from addiction begs the question: when will the rest of the country catch up? According to administrators at LEAD, law-enforcement representatives from San Francisco, Denver, Atlanta and Houston have visited to Seattle to learn from the program.

The traditional system not only defies humanity, but also is an economic embarrassment, especially when you consider that the approximate cost per person for 30 days in Seattle is $250 for someone enrolled in the LEAD program, versus $3,104 for someone in jail, according to the American Medical Association. Attitudes are catching up to mounting evidence that the so-called War on Drugs has been a catastrophic and expensive failure—expensive not only economically but also in terms of human lives.