By James M. Decker
Editor’s note: This is the third part in my series on drugs and addiction in our communities. If you have not read the first two parts (“Real Problems, Our Problems” and “They Are Us”), I encourage you to do so.
Our communities are decaying from drug addiction and the accompanying crime, death, despair, and other adverse impacts. It is incumbent on community leaders to create and enact solutions, rather than wait on someone else to solve the problem. In discussion at the recent West Texas Rural Summit, one sheriff said something striking—he wanted to put drug dealers behind bars, but drug use is less law enforcement problem and more healthcare problem. Half of his jail is filled with drug charges and over half of those drug-related inmates are dealing with some form of mental illness. To make matters worse, 80% of drug-related inmates are repeat drug offenders. Simply locking up drug users does not solve a problem, it only keeps jail beds filled.
I can only conclude that we are fighting the wrong fight. By locking up drug users, we’re fighting the symptoms of the problem, not the problem itself. Instead, we need to look at why the symptoms exist in the first place.
USDA research finds that rural drug use is a symptom of several problems. Most important, in my mind, is that drug use has become a primary form of self-medication. Drug users are medicating for a number of reasons, including depression and despair, as well as lacking economic opportunity (which, in itself, only further fuels depression and despair). The solution is not to lock up folks who don’t want to be in the throes of addiction to begin with. The solution is to help addicted folks to get clean and to prevent addiction from happening in the first place.
It is easy to wish for answers through stronger law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Law enforcement is a necessary piece of the puzzle to enforce laws and arrest drug dealers, but law enforcement cannot solve the problem of addiction. By design, law enforcement is a reactive approach—it attacks a problem after the problem already exists. A farmer doesn’t control weeds in his field solely by letting the weeds grow and then removing them. Removing growing weeds is only part of the solution. The farmer strives to use good management practices that prevent the weeds from ever growing at all.
So it goes with addiction. Relying on law enforcement alone might control some of the problems, but law enforcement alone will never wholly prevent the problems from popping up. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. For too long we have expected to control the decay of drugs and addiction in our towns with law enforcement solutions alone. Then, we’re dejected and dismayed when the problems seem to continue. It’s time for a new model. It’s time to strike at the reasons that addiction exists.
And coming next week, I’ll explain why that answer lies in this phrase: shine a light into the darkness.
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James Decker is a lawyer, farmer, and mayor in Stamford, Texas, and the creator of the forthcoming “West of 98” podcast and website. He may be contacted through Facebook at facebook.com/james.decker.