The Surgeon General Finally Gives Addiction Its Own Label

For the first time, a sitting Surgeon General recognizes addiction as a health crisis.

A new Surgeon General’s report finds drug and alcohol addiction to be one of America’s most pressing public health concerns.

“It’s time to change how we view addiction,” U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy wrote in his landmark report last month. “Not as a moral failing, but as a chronic illness that must be treated with skill, urgency and compassion. The way we address this crisis is a test for America.”

The Importance of This Report

This marks the first time ever that a sitting U.S. Surgeon General has declared substance abuse a public health crisis – a huge step forward for the addiction industry. Clearly, this will impact a variety of policies in the future, but what if this new approach was applied to the criminal justice realm? Would it significantly impact all those who were struggling with substance abuse behind bars?

Substance-use disorder costs our country $442 billion annually in health-care and criminal justice-related spending. Over 300,000 inmates are currently serving time in state and federal prisons for convictions related to drugs, and more than 2 million inmates – or approximately 65 percent – “meet the criteria for substance-abuse addiction.” But this number doesn’t include the millions in the system serving out lesser sentences, whether in the county jail, on probation, or participating in court-ordered rehab programs.

The recidivism rate remains so high in our society because a one-size-fits-all punitive stance doesn’t work; it’s simply not responsive to each person’s health problem. And while the criminal system does offer treatment alternatives, they’re usually organized in a way that harshly punishes failures, which isn’t an effective way to deal with the disease of addiction.

Change Takes Time

Unfortunately, change isn’t going to come about quickly – even if treating addiction as a public health problem does gain more traction. A poignant article from The Atlantic suggests that any reforms in the way state and federal governments see addiction will produce institutional competition on behalf of the criminal justice institutions. This means that if federal dollars are redirected to those struggling with addiction on the “outside,” then penal institutions are going to compete and seek money to deal with addiction through the criminal justice system.

Still, as more time has gone on, it has become more apparent that the criminal justice system is not the place to treat addiction. It simply warehouses people, doing nothing in terms of rehabilitating them or addressing the root cause of their addiction. If we really want change in this arena, we have to change our views about substance abuse. And the Surgeon General’s report is a great first step in a journey toward that change.

Image Source: iStock