“Addiction” is a word that most of us tend to use perhaps too casually, and it’s usually an exaggeration. We might say that we are “addicted” to old movies or to walks on the beach, but in its more precise sense, that’s not really what addiction is. Addiction is a disease. It is a complex brain and body disease defined by the compulsive use of one or more substances in spite of the enormously negative health and social ramifications. Like any disease, addiction is caused by a mix of environmental and biological factors.
When basic human needs such as hunger and thirst are satisfied, we feel pleasure. Those feelings result from the release of certain chemicals in the brain. Addictive substances cause the brain to release abnormally high levels of the chemicals that are linked to pleasures and rewards. Over time, a person may need the addictive substance simply to feel normal, may experience intense cravings for the addictive substance, and will use it despite mounting dangerous consequences. Ultimately, addiction can cause a person to stop caring about anything – except the addiction.
WHAT ARE THE CONSEQUENCES OF ADDICTION?
Seda Gragossian is a Ph.D., a licensed psychologist who specializes in addictions, and the Clinical Director at the Talk Therapy Psychology Center. Dr. Gragossian says, “It is important not to generalize the relationship between addictions and crime. The majority of people with addictions do not engage in criminal activity. However, being intoxicated does impact one’s judgment. Additionally, the type of crime varies by the type of addiction. For example, some individuals who abuse alcohol, become angry and, at times, violent while intoxicated. There is also the danger of driving under the influence, though this behavior is not limited to those who are addicted.”
“Given that those addicted engage in the behavior more regularly, however, they are more likely to put themselves at risk of driving under the influence,” Dr. Gragossian explains. “Since drugs can be expensive and those who are highly addicted are not likely to be able to hold jobs and have steady incomes, they do potentially resort to theft or selling drugs in order to fund their habit. The one drug that has been closely linked to murders and violent crimes is methamphetamine. This particular drug hijacks the brain and the person’s ability to make rational decisions.”
Addiction changes the way the brain and body function. If untreated, addiction in time becomes severe, disabling, and life-threatening. Eventually, an addict will require medical attention. Addiction affects the parts of the brain that govern motivation, judgment, memory, and learning. Addiction also harms the body in a number of ways, and it damages or destroys marriages, families, friendships, careers, and lives. Addiction is defined as a disease by almost all medical authorities including the American Medical Association and the American Society of Addiction Medicine.
However, generally speaking, the criminal justice system in the United States does not consider that addiction is a disease, and a full and realistic medical understanding of addiction has not been woven into law and legal thinking. Unfortunately, far too many judges still approach addiction as a character issue – a lack of gumption or willpower. The law still fails to recognize that rational decision-making is an impossibility for anyone who is gripped by the disease of addiction.
It’s not all hopeless, of course, and some important progress has been and is being made. In fact, associations like The Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association, “constantly monitor and address policy issues related to emerging trends that impact substance abuse.” Addiction specialists and mental health experts are routinely, consistently, and successfully educating the public, including judges and lawmakers. Many judges are now more willing to hear expert testimony regarding addiction during criminal proceedings. When sentences for drug crimes and drug-related crimes are handed down, some type of treatment is now frequently required by the courts.
WHY HAVE PROPOSED SOLUTIONS TO THE DRUG PROBLEM FAILED?
Pablo Solomon is an internationally-known artist designer who worked as a counselor and later as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Education. Solomon says proposed solutions to the drug problem have failed for a number of reasons. “My wife Beverly was a model and then an executive in sales and marketing for Diane von Furstenberg, Revlon and then Ralph Lauren. She can tell stories of executives, models, designers, who lost everything – their businesses, their health, their dignity, their homes, etc. from drug abuse.”
Solomon observes, “The rich and famous are just as vulnerable to having their lives destroyed by drugs as are the poor. They just can finance their own destruction easier. And have the media to make them look good while doing it.” He says, “In my opinion, the biggest crime associated with addiction is that being perpetrated by Hollywood, the music industry and TV as they literally glorify drug use and immorality. They mock the family and religion. And then they shed crocodile tears over the plight of the poor, abuse of women and income inequality.”
Pablo Solomon concludes, “The cavalier attitude of the media – TV, music, Hollywood, etc. – toward drug use has turned a once somewhat moral nation into a moral sewer and has weakened the nation physically, mentally and militarily.” He laments that “There are entire communities that are wastelands and war zones due to drug wars and drug users.”
Obviously, we have a long way to go, according to West Palm Beach criminal defense lawyer Rick Hutchinson. “Twenty plus years of practicing criminal defense law in South Florida have proven to me that many people charged with a crime are not criminals, but rather, people with a drug or alcohol problem, experiencing the consequences of their addiction,” Attorney Hutchinson says. “Current statistics say that as much as 85 percent of all crime is driven by some form of addiction.” Oakland personal injury lawyer Jeffrey Nadrich mentions that drug addiction often times is the root cause of criminal activity and is tied to poor decision making along the way.
Rick Hutchinson believes that all of the proposed solutions to the drug problem in the U.S. – from the “war on drugs” to cannabis decriminalization – have all failed because they are based on a misunderstanding of the nature of addiction. He says, “I see incarceration rates continue to climb and new lives devastated in ever-increasing numbers. As a result, I have come to believe that the solution to our nation’s drug problem lies not in legislation and incarceration, but in treatment.”
Every day in the United States, in courtrooms in every state and in almost every jurisdiction, judges presiding in criminal cases must choose between treatment and punishment for convicted offenders. Unfortunately, these fateful decisions are almost never based on any established scientific or legal principle. Instead, a judge simply looks at the options available in his or her jurisdiction and tries to pick the option most appropriate in each case.
WHAT HELP FOR ADDICTION IS AVAILABLE THROUGH THE COURTS?
Most jurisdictions offer some type of diversionary program that allows first-time offenders to have a charge dismissed upon the successful completion of a treatment program. Sentence mitigation programs have been established in both state and federal courts. These programs combine incarceration or probation with some type of treatment and/or counseling for a shorter or less severe sentence.
Anyone who is arrested and charged with a drug crime or a drug-related crime in South Florida should probably consider taking an aggressively pro-active approach. Attorney Hutchinson suggests, “When faced with a drug or alcohol related charge, it is important to become aware of all of the existing options. I find that one of the most effective and readily available strategies is to confront the problem head-on by seeking help from an inpatient treatment facility.”
“Often,” Hutchinson says, “your attorney can then appear in court on your behalf. Ideally, it will then be explained to the judge that you have sought intensive help of your own volition. This not only reduces the burden on an already overwhelmed system, it also provides the court with options that it may not have otherwise considered. I have found that judges and prosecutors often respond favorably to a sincere effort to address the problem voluntarily.” Attorney Hutchinson adds that “treatment in lieu of incarceration, jail time or punishment is not only a solid legal strategy, but also a very humane and effective form of rehabilitation for those who struggle with addiction.”
In South Florida, if you are accused of a drug crime or a drug-related crime, if you believe that you suffer from addiction, and if you are ready to confront the disease of addiction, it is important to work with an experienced West Palm Beach criminal defense lawyer who knows the facilities and resources that are available. Attorney Rick Hutchinson says, “It will do me no good to send my client to an unrecognized facility. I want the prosecutor and the judge to be able to trust that the program we have chosen is an obviously superior alternative to jail or punishment.”
What’s certain is that more prisons and longer prison sentences are not the answers. Although plenty of sensible reform is still needed, at least there is now genuine help and support available through the criminal justice system – in most jurisdictions – for those struggling with addiction. If you are facing criminal charges, the right attorney can advise you about the available options and the best course of action in your particular case.
If you are charged with a crime, and if you are struggling with addiction, take advantage of the opportunity to get the help you need. When someone charged with a drug crime or a drug-related crime is willing to follow good advice, the criminal charges against that person may eventually come to be understood as the turning point in his or her life – and the start of a new life free of the disease of addiction.