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Prison not the answer: To reduce drug addiction, we have to thoughtfully face it


By Dr. William Sansing

Recently a colleague and I were discussing taking new approaches to crime and addiction, and he said something I hope will stick with me for the rest of my life. He said, “It’s just easier to kick the can down the road by locking folks up and letting someone else deal with the problem.” The challenge with kicking the can of addiction is that the can has a way of compounding itself as new problems emerge from incarceration while the old ones continue.

In my professional experience as a therapist for people struggling with addiction, I’ve learned that locking people up often does just that. It doesn’t stop the addiction, and it frequently compounds the problems in that person’s life.

There is a saying in the addiction recovery world; you keep doing the work and keep coming back until the miracle occurs. Over the past 25 years, I have witnessed this occurrence among many people. I often share that recovery is a gift.

Striving to live a recovery lifestyle is nothing short of a miracle.

During late April, on a Thursday evening in the dining room at Old Waverly Golf Club in West Point, my wife and I, along with about 50 others from the Golden Triangle area of Mississippi, witnessed a different sort of miracle take place. A young woman from Jackson, Mississippi, and her team from the organization End It For Good hosted a groundbreaking community discussion about the harms from drugs in our community.

At the community discussion, Christina Dent gave a thought-provoking presentation about the harms of the war on drugs. Each attendee then had one minute to voice their thoughts and perspectives. The only rule was to be respectful. No arguing.

Their program is like another recovery saying: “It’s very simple, but one of the hardest things you can ever do.” Dent closed by asking each person to ponder what would really reduce harm and increase safety and thriving for everyone in our communities.

Have our efforts to punish people struggling with addiction achieved their intended results, or are the unintended consequences of disconnected families and unemployable citizens just too great?

I can’t speak for everyone in the room, but for me, it felt like a shift in our represented communities’ understanding. The dialogue that night was free of judgment and shame. Perhaps it was the beginning of healing and introspection for many. It seems to me, End It For Good is striving to end us kicking these cans down the road and ask what is truly best for our communities.

My professional experience, as well as research on addiction, confirms that the most successful path out of addiction often includes deep relationships, a sense of life purpose, and healing from trauma. We’ve spent many decades doing the opposite of that through incarceration.

To help more people exit addiction, we need to build communities where relationships, purpose, and healing are available to everyone. Not only will this help those currently experiencing addiction, it will also help prevent the next generation from going down that same harmful path. If not for ourselves, we need to consider changing our approach to addiction for the good of our kids and grandkids.

William Sansing, Ph.D., of Starkville has 25 years of experience as a disability policy advocate and substance use disorder professional. He is a therapist with the Oxford Treatment Center and the Starkville Wellness Group. 

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