Americans are more than familiar with the decades old War on Drugs.

This familiarity, however, seems to be more unwelcome than ever as most Americans have become jaded by what they overwhelmingly consider an ineffective policy. Now more than ever, public opinion has shifted to the understanding that addiction is a disease, not a crime.

The Pew Research Center published an article earlier this month revealing that a whopping two-thirds of Americans support treatment for heroin and cocaine abusers rather than a jail sentence. Little more than a decade ago, Americans were nearly evenly divided on the issue.

This shift in public opinion could be related to the rise in illicit drug use. Heroin more than doubled in use from 2002 to 2012. To compound this problem, a study in 2009 revealed that over 200,000 people suffering from heroin addiction faced incarceration every year.

The public is still just as concerned about the epidemic of drug abuse. Despite the growing support for treating nonviolent offenders rather than incarcerating them, public opinion hasn’t changed much in the past two decades in regards to considering drug use as a crisis taking place both locally and nationally.

Reassessing Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Nonviolent Drug Crimes

Florida has lately been the center of the debate on mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, such as possession. This debate is undoubtedly correlated to the rise in public support for treatment for drug addiction.

Under current Florida law, possession of several painkillers can land you in jail for a minimum of three years. This is because possession of more than four grams of opiate prescriptions is considered trafficking.

This legislation sprouted out of concern about Florida pill mills churning out prescriptions to whomever walked through the door. However, two bills in the Florida legislature are currently challenging this law.

Attorney General Eric Holder has also joined the national debate on mandatory minimum sentences. He believes mandatory minimums should be reserved for serious offenders, joining the majority whose opinion favors treatment over jail time.

In a statement released on April 10, Mr. Holder said, “It simply makes sense to explore alternatives to incarceration and renew our emphasis on treatment and prevention.”

Since 2009, over 40 states have begun taking action, replacing mandatory minimums with the use of drug courts.

Are Drug Courts the Answer?

If a person is arrested for a nonviolent drug crime, there is sometimes an alternative option to a jail sentence. This alternative is the drug court model.

According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, “Drug courts significantly reduce drug abuse and crime and do so at less expense than any other justice strategy.” This sheds light on why national public opinion is shifting toward treatment for drug addicts passing through the justice system.

“A drug court participant is over twice as likely to stay clean and remain arrest-free as a newly released state inmate,” states the NADCP.

In lieu of facing incarceration, participants in the drug court system are mandated to meet certain obligations to help them get clean and stay clean for a minimum of one year. Such obligations include an intensive treatment program and regular court appearances to assess the progress of the individual. Additionally, participants in the drug court model are even rewarded for doing well.

Conversely, those who face incarceration due to nonviolent drug crimes face inordinately higher rates of relapse and overdose upon release. There are several reasons for this, such as a lack of treatment in jail, no treatment referrals upon release and returning to an environment not conducive to continued recovery.

Unfortunately, most U.S. counties don’t have drug courts that can handle the capacity of individuals arrested for nonviolent drug crimes.

As they function, drug courts have been successful in reducing not only the number of those incarcerated (not to mention taxpayer dollars), but also the number of those who resume their drug use after being released from a sentence.

If policy continues to follow public opinion, it is likely more drug courts will begin sprouting up around the nation–a welcome development for those who want to see those with a drug dependence get real help.

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