Addiction Is a Disease, Not a Crime

The state of Kentucky is currently the target of a federal case for its refusal to allow opiate addicts from receiving medical care while they’re being monitored by the authorities, including incarceration and bail. The suit is being filed by Stephanie Watson, a Kentucky nurse with an opiate addiction, who claims she is being denied access to medications that would help treat her chemical dependency, such as Methadone, Vivitrol and Suboxone. These drugs have been denied to her as a condition of her bond agreement. The lawsuit asserts that denial of access to these drugs violates the Equal Protection Clause, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

A Potential Watershed Moment for Opiate Addiction Sufferers  

Whatever the outcome of this case, it represents a conversation in which we must continue to engage if we’re to change the collective perception of addiction and reverse the course of the stigma that blocks so many from getting treatment. The state-sanctioned denial of medication to chemically dependent offenders is emblematic of an attitude that has pervaded not just the general public; but also official institutions like law enforcement and state government. As the legality of these attitudes is argued in court, more and more people sink further into addiction while waiting for potentially lifesaving resources. Watson’s attorney has moved to expedite the suit because her doctor is convinced that she is in a bad risk area.

Kentucky’s Checkered Past and Present

The state of Kentucky has a long history battling addiction. They have, for some time, been one of the highest-rated states for meth-related incidents. Although they’ve seen a considerable reduction over the past few years, the state still has the eighth highest number of meth labs in the country according to a recent survey. Overall the state has the third highest drug overdose mortality rate in the United States. It is a mistake to believe that the state’s persistent and lingering short-comings regarding prevention aren’t linked to their view on treating addicts themselves—if addicts can’t get the proper care, they will not recover.

Despite the rampant overdose-related deaths plaguing the state, Kentucky is still clinging to the concept of complete abstinence rather than taking a pragmatic look at medication-assisted treatment and denying an incredibly vulnerable group of people scientifically proven resources to get the help they need. They have made considerable strides when it comes to enforcement of offenders; however their perception of addicts and how they should be treated is questionable. The verdict rendered in this case can significantly impact this counterproductive culture.  

Part of a Larger Problem

From the terminology we use to the way we tend to portray chemical dependency sufferers in the media to the overwhelmingly enforcement-centric climate of drug and alcohol addiction prevention across the United States, we run the danger of ignoring the very real needs of these legitimately sick people. It is not until we start treating chemical dependency as a chronic disease that requires ongoing care and maintenance, and availing ourselves of every possible treatment tool, that we can being to talk about reducing fatality, crime, poverty and all other negative effects of drug and alcohol abuse.