War on drugs achieved little – 60 Minutes

In its documentary “A new Direction on Drugs”, 60 minutes concluded that the US has “little show” for the 40-year, multi-trillion dollar war on drugs. That is, unless you count overflowing prisons and massive expenditure. And to crown it all, heroin addiction in the US is at a new high, war or no war.


The president’s director of the National Drug Control Policy, Michael Botticelli says that past efforts have consisted of failed policies and practices. The time for “blunt force” is over, he says, pointing the facts. 21 million Americans suffer from addictions and around 50% of federal prison inmates are doing time for drug-related crimes.

Inhumane and ineffective policies must go – Botticelli

Addiction, says Botticelli is an illness rather than some kind of moral issue that people should be incarcerated for. He compares the policy of incarcerating addicts to telling cancer sufferers to stop having cancer.

Although his ideas are revolutionary, they are not unproven. When he was Director of Substance Abuse Services in Massachusetts, he introduced hitherto unheard-of strategies, such as an entire school for teens recovering from addiction, and allowing addicts to choose rehabilitation over a jail sentence.

Treating addicts as patients rather than criminals will, says Botticelli reduce rather than increase the incidence of non-drug related crime. He knows that many will find his approach disturbing, and that it will raise fears, but says it’s the scientific way to deal with addiction.

Tighter border controls won’t solve the problem

Referring to the political hot potato of tighter border controls, Botticelli says it won’t make a difference. The ‘solution’ is too simplistic and overlooks the fact that the current heroin crisis began on US soil. It even began in doctor’s consulting rooms and pharmacies. Owing to excessive reliance on opioid based pain killers in the medical context, many people became opioid addicts, ultimately turning to heroin.

Born an addict

While filming the documentary, the 60 Minutes team visited a facility in which new-borns are gradually weaned of opioids – substances they became addicted to not only because of their mothers’ heroin use, but also the use of prescription pain killers.

If these children were to be left untreated, they may die as withdrawal sets in. One severe seizure could kill, so it’s vital to ensure that these addicted babies are allowed a gentler withdrawal. All the same, it’s not what most people would see as a pleasant start to life. Discomfort is inevitable for these infants.

How do painkillers lead to heroin?

Painkiller addicts find that they need more and more of the drugs just to remain pain-free. Initially, they may ‘shop around’ for doctors who are willing to prescribe the medications, but ultimately the habit becomes too expensive to support.

Heroin is cheaper and widely available. As the addiction worsens, and doctors become warier of prescribing opioids, getting pain killers becomes more difficult, and even if the patient is able to find access, the cost is very high. Heroin provides a sometimes fatal solution.

Every day, 120 Americans die of drug overdoses – that’s more fatalities than road accidents cause. To help reduce fatalities, Botticelli tried an ‘experiment’ in Quincy. Police officers were equipped with a nasal spray that can be used as an antidote for overdose victims. Local police say they believe they have already saved lives as a result.

What about marijuana?

Botticelli is worried that marijuana is becoming a playground for unscrupulous marketers appealing to a young market who now believes that the drug is harmless. As with big tobacco and it’s 1990’s flavoured products that clearly targeted a young market, Botticelli fears that sweet edibles and cute mascots are being used to win over the youth.

What should people who are suffering from addiction do?

Botticelli has personal experience of addiction. He is a recovered alcoholic who has been free of alcohol addiction for more than two and a half decades. But first he had to acknowledge the problem and seek help.

For him, a 12-step program was the solution. Basement meetings in a local church gave him the opportunity to speak about his alcohol issues, and he says the support was amazing. 12 step programs may not be right for everyone, but there are many therapies that can aid recovery. True professionals understand that being an addict doesn’t mean a person is “weak-willed” or “bad”, but the results of addiction can be very bad indeed – even fatal.

That’s the message he wants to bring across. “Help is at hand”. He encourages addicts to reach out by talking to their doctors. Botticelli says that if he can bring people to understand that life outside addiction really offers the promise of and “incredible life”, he has already achieved what he set out to do.

Treatment, he says, is available. Overcoming addiction is possible, but getting help is the essential first step to take.

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