There is an increasing demand by the public to punish the people who sell heroin, pain pills, and other opiates. The cost of addiction drug treatment has become a burden to us as a society. Slogans like Just Say No may inspire small school children, but they really don’t help people years later when they are confronted with their initial decision to use drugs.
People end up in addiction drug treatment for a variety of reasons. Abuse possibly began when they hung out with their friends and responded to peer pressure to just try this or that. Other people who struggle with the clutching tentacles of opiate addiction first became enmeshed with the drug world when a doctor innocently prescribed an opiate pain medication to treat a medical or dental problem. Those people become accidental addicts, unable to stop reaching out for more and more pills, till they’re stealing them from other family members and then buying pills on the street. Then the day comes when the dealer tells them, “I don’t have any of those pills. How about trying some of this heroin?”
The Public Speaks Out
On a recent Thursday afternoon in Ohio, a radio talk-show host spent his three-hour stint asking people to call in and give their opinion on appropriate punishment for convicted heroin dealers. Give them the death sentence, he urged. He also invited recovering opiate addicts to talk about their ideas for effective addiction drug treatment. The response was overwhelming.
In Texas, a couple of young women sold heroin to a 19-year-old who had never shot up before. They took her to an apartment so she could enjoy her very first heroin high. When they noticed she had several thousand in cash in her purse, they injected her with enough heroin to keep her compliant, and she died from an overdose. One of the women has been convicted in the case and awaits sentencing; the other woman is on the run, and a man involved in the case will be tried soon. What sentence fits the crime when the product sold leads to death?
In Missouri, a judge has sentenced a British citizen to 20 years in prison for selling heroin to a 19-year-old man who died. He was extradited from his home country, where he was serving an eight-year sentence for selling heroin to yet another person who fatally overdosed. The Missouri judge considered a life sentence, but he had agreed before the trial not to do that. The prosecution feared the British government would block extradition if they knew the criminal would be held in an American prison for life. The victim in this case was set to enter college on a sports scholarship, by the way; too bad he didn’t make it into addiction drug treatment.
Sherman Chester of Florida received a mandatory life sentence after his third conviction for selling heroin. He was caught with four kilos of heroin—a possible street value of almost half a million, depending where you live—and everybody from his mother to the judge has lamented the sentence. People who are trained in addiction drug treatment understand the need for stiffer sentences, because if less people at the street level refuse to sell, it will bring out the bigger fish. But many argue that Chester should have received the lesser sentence of 20 years. The cost of addiction drug treatment is nothing compared to the 1.3 million bucks that it will cost for his lifetime behind the bars, according to Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM).
The Price of Addiction Drug Treatment Versus Prison
In some but not all states, anyone convicted of an initial drug charge is offered drug treatment ahead of imprisonment. If the crime is not possession but is related to drug use—such as someone stealing a car to pay for drugs—the person might be sentenced to drug court.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reported that a person could receive methadone for heroin addiction drug treatment at an average cost of $4,700 while the costs of jail would increase by $2 to $6 per day for that same person. Those sent to jail were also seven times more likely to complete their sentences and then end up back in prison for another drug-related crime. That potential for return to prison boosts the cost of prison treatment per person from $24,000 to $47,000, according to Mary Carmichael writing for Newsweek several years ago.
Those costs are still low, say others. When calculating the costs of addiction drug treatment, they don’t factor in health care for addicts diagnosed with infectious diseases or malnutrition. They don’t allow for processing of child custody cases opened when family instability results from heroin drug abuse. They don’t make any calculation for lost worktime productivity of the person who becomes addicted.
The Price For the Taxpayer
President Obama recently proposed specific funds for opiate addiction drug treatment and specifically for opioid misuse and abuse. Next year’s budget if approved will contain $133 million earmarked for the following specific measures:
- $48 million will go toward strengthening opioid prescription overdose at the state level. State drug monitoring programs will be funded or renewed. Interactivity between states will be enhanced. The CDC’s budget for state prevention programs will be increased. State grants will be funded for a variety of programs.
- Another $5 million will go to integrate the prescription monitoring programs with current health information technology.
- $5 million will be spent on improving data collection from emergency departments throughout the country to improve collection of statistics on heroin or prescription addiction drug abuse.
- Another $5 million will provide more up-to-date reports on heroin or opiate pain pill deaths. It’s sad and frustrating that researchers looking for solid statistics have to quote studies done a year or so ago.
- $12 million will go to people at the grass-roots level in each state so they can dispense Naloxone and teach first-responders how to use it.
- $10 million will be devoted to SAMHSA’s Strategic Prevention Framework so that effective treatment can be incorporated into state plans. This will get education and technical assistance out to the people on the front lines.
- There is also a proposal that people insured through Medicare will only be able to purchase controlled substances such as opiate pain pills from specific providers and pharmacies.
The Price of a Life
You might feel confusion about where you stand on the issue. Perhaps you cringe at the idea that someone might spend significant time in prison instead of getting opiate addiction drug treatment. It’s also a shame to consider the lives lost to addiction, the people who had one high too many and never woke up from it. Have you had any close calls? What about your friends? Do you know people who have died because they didn’t get addiction drug treatment?
That’s when it’s time to pick up the phone and make a call to a methadone addiction treatment program where you can get help. You may have to struggle to cover the costs. If you have private insurance, you may have to submit bills to your insurance on your own. But it will be worth it, because the cost of addiction drug treatment is not only less than the cost of imprisonment: It’s also less than the cost of a funeral.