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  • Drew Climo

From Treatment to Incarceration: Changes in Drug-Related Charges and Convictions

Updated: Oct 25, 2023

The opioid epidemic has continued to be a national issue that has plagued our country for multiple years and is showing no signs of abating any time soon. In 2015, 35,000 Americans have died because of heroin or opioid overdoses alone. In 2016, 20,145 Americans died from synthetic opioid overdoses and a little over 15,000 died from heroin overdoses. Just as alarming, according to the CDC, while opioid prescriptions have started to decline the number of opioid-involved overdoses has continued to grow. President Trump has said the opioid epidemic is a national emergency that needs to be addressed on all sides in order to be beaten. However, President Trump has yet to actually declare the issue a national emergency through government measures. More interestingly, the legal rhetoric offered by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in recent months has shown the Department of Justice is taking a much more heavy-handed approach to dealing with this crisis, such as prosecution of drug related crimes and mandatory sentencing.

The strict prosecutorial approach explained by Attorney General Sessions in his memo to the Department of Justice focuses on opioid-related health care fraud from physicians and pharmacists that are dispensing prescription drugs for illicit purposes in order to attack the issue at its source. Attorney General Sessions stated in his memo that “[i]t is a core principle that prosecutors should charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense." The Attorney General mentioned the importance of treatment for people facing issues with addiction, but stated ultimately that treatment isn’t enough. In order to face the opioid crisis, Attorney General Sessions felt “[w]e must create a culture that is hostile to drug abuse.” In accordance with these new principles Attorney General Sessions and the Justice Department recently charged 412 people, including 56 physicians with defrauding the federal government. It would therefore seem Sessions is pushing the federal government back towards mandatory sentencing in order to attack the pushers of these drugs, legal or otherwise.

While Attorney General Sessions has started attacking the sources of the opioid crisis, he has done nothing to address rehabilitation or treatment for the low-level addicts that are currently serving time or being prosecuted at the federal and state level. Currently 300,000 people are being held in federal and state prisons for violating drug laws, and the majority of these individuals are addicts who have been caught in the opioid epidemic looming over our country, rather than the physicians or drug pushers that provided the source of the addiction, and are arguably more culpable. This approach seems contradictory to the low-level criminals and addicts who get caught up in the justice system because existing research has shown incarceration is an ineffective path for recovery for people dealing with addiction. For example, in many states, possession of any amount of heroin may be punishable by up to a year in prison for a first offense. Once convicted, drug offenders have more than a 75% recidivism rate within five years of their release concerning their continued abuse of drugs. Additionally, if the convicted person gets handed a longer sentence, they are less likely to access the prison rehabilitation services as convicted persons with shorter sentences are given favorable treatment. The addict is then even less likely to be given or seek any rehabilitation treatment to ebb their addiction. Many states have also now passed legislation to enhance penalties for opioid possession and distribution. These mandatory sentencing guidelines, while effectively punishing high level dealers, force low level dealers and addicts to face the same levels of intense punishment, punishing these low level criminals much more substantially.

While these laws could help prosecutors convict illegal drug pushers and dealers more harshly in order to deter future sales, it also further punishes addicts for simple possession charges. These convictions then lead to further problems for addicts in later finding work and housing. Known drug users and those with felony convictions can be restricted from accessing public housing. These issues do not even begin to address the social stigmas aligned with being a known criminal or a person with a drug addiction. These social issues on top of criminal convictions can fully determine where a person can live, work, and how their lives will continue after incarceration and whether or not they will ever be fully able to cease their addiction.

Prior to this administration, the federal and state courts had been moving towards rehabilitation for addicts in order to address the root cause of the issue and not stigmatize the person in need of help to address their addiction and underlying issues. But under the new mandatory sentencing protocol put forward by Attorney General Sessions, addicts will be again forced back into the penal system where they will have fewer resources to deal with their rehabilitation. Ultimately, federal and state governments are likely to clash on how to prosecute future cases in this area. It is unclear how large of an effect the new orders by the Justice Department will have on the opioid crisis, but it seems we will still be dealing with this issue for much longer periods to come before it is solved.


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