Columns, Opinion

EDITORIAL: Forcing sobriety on addicts won’t help with their road to recovery

Julie Eldred is an addict. The 29-year-old has struggled with an addiction to opioids for nearly a decade. In 2013, she was caught stealing jewelry to pay for her drug use, and sent to a treatment program for her addiction. Upon completing the program, Eldred was released on probation — under the condition that she would maintain her sobriety. Shortly thereafter, Eldred relapsed, and was sentenced to two months in a women’s prison in Framingham. Now, she is arguing her sentence was unconstitutional — that the conditions of her probation were impossible to comply with — that at the time, staying away from drugs was a physical impossibility for her.

An article published by The Boston Globe on Sunday told Eldred’s story. Though it is an interesting story in and of itself, it is also a story that could impact all of Massachusetts. Early next month, her case will be heard in the Supreme Judicial Court, the highest court in the state. There, it will be determined whether courts can force sobriety on drug users — an issue that has been under much scrutiny over the past several years.

In short, Eldred’s problem — the problem that the court is set to consider — is whether it is fair to force sobriety on drug users. In other words, can people with addictions be held responsible for their drug use? Is it truly something under their control?

Addiction is an incredibly unique phenomenon. On the one hand, it is a very real medical condition, complete with symptoms and treatments and doctors — just like asthma or diabetes or any other number of ailments. This element of addiction is very much out of the addicts control, only treatable with the help of medical professionals.

If the condition in question was not addiction, but something like asthma per say, there would be an entirely different narrative. People wouldn’t expect someone to conquer their asthma through determination and positive thinking. One cannot actively decide to stop suffering from a disease.

On the other hand, there is also an element to addiction that is very much under an addict’s control. There have been thousands of cases recorded where people were able to kick their drug habits, either through rehabilitation or through the power of sheer will. This is something you would never see with a more conventional kind of illness. Of course, the vast majority of the time, this is not the case, it is not nearly that easy. But the fact that these cases exist makes the issue much more complex when it comes to these important legal decisions.

Rehabilitation is, of course, the ideal sentence for a criminal with a serious drug addiction. Neither probation nor jail time do enough to address these addicts’ problems and help them to recover. Only in a treatment facility can people with drug addictions get the comprehensive help they need. But what happens when rehab doesn’t work? Rehab certainly wasn’t a miracle cure for Eldred. After completing her initial treatment, she relapsed almost immediately, and quickly wound up in jail. State lawyers said that by sending Eldred to jail, the judge might have saved her life. However, jail was no more of a cure for Eldred than rehab was. After being released from prison, she entered treatment yet again. Only after that did she find herself able to maintain sobriety, though even then, it was only for three years.

When rehabilitation is unsuccessful, it feels like our criminal justice system likes to look toward jail time as the immediate next step. This is not how things should be done. Of course rehab won’t always work. People are fallible. Recovery takes time. However, there is no reason to think jail would be any better. Inmates often have even more access to drugs inside of prison than they do outside, and they aren’t always given the medical help they need to recover while they’re behind bars.

This issue is just a microcosm of a much larger problem: the war on drugs. When nonviolent drug offenders are filling jail cells across America, everyone loses. Decriminalization of drugs is key — jail should be the last resort.

A huge amount of resources in the United States are wasted each year on keeping addicts in jail, where they are unable to recover from their addictions. Whether the SJC rules that sobriety is a legitimate condition of probation or not next month, there will never be a perfect solution — at least not under our current criminal justice system. However, that is not the real issue, that is not something we can solve. The real issue lies in the fact that jail time is on the table for people like Julie Eldred at all, and that is something we can solve.

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