IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Jail can make drug addiction worse. Oregon decriminalizing hard drugs can break the cycle.

Drugs are often rampant in U.S. prisons. I’ve worked with addicts who get incarcerated for possessing small amounts of meth and leave knowing how to cook it.
Image: A man in handcuffs is led down the hallway of a prison; while a man smokes meth from a pipe in a green shape; men exchange money for a baggie of drugs in a blue shape.
Illicit drugs are often brought in via visits with family or friends, while inside many prisons there are thriving black markets of homemade concoctions.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Getty Images

At the age of 24, I was arrested for the fourth time in 11 months — each time for drug possession and for driving under the influence of drugs. I knew my life was completely out of control, but I felt powerless to stop it. I wasn’t sure how I’d even ended up in this place. I had started taking prescription opioids for a painful injury, and after a few months it spiraled to the point that I was buying drugs on the streets. Following three brief stints in the county jail, I was facing the possibility of much harsher consequences: a 15-year prison sentence.

By offering treatment in lieu of incarceration, we’re giving these individuals a real chance to heal and lead productive lives instead of compounding their addiction when serving time.

Thankfully, confronted with this dire outcome, I found an outstanding attorney who pushed me to seek treatment. He worked hard to convince the judge to delay my case, giving me time to get clean and show the judge that I wasn’t a criminal, just someone in the throes of addiction. By the grace of God, the judge recognized my hard work, and I managed to avoid prison time.

Had that judge not spared me from prison, I’m not sure I would have survived.

In my experience working in addiction treatment since becoming clean, I’ve seen firsthand the devastating effects incarceration can have on drug addicts. The reality is that incarcerating small-time drug offenders is actively contributing to America’s drug problem because of drug use and lack of treatment in prison.

That’s why Oregon’s Measure 110 is such a huge step in the right direction. Thanks to the referendum that passed on Nov. 3, Oregon is now the first state to decriminalize small amounts of heroin and other hard drugs. It reduces misdemeanor drug possession to a noncriminal violation on par with a traffic offense and gives those caught the option of being screened for a substance abuse disorder and directed to treatment.

By giving addicts a path to a better life by offering treatment in lieu of incarceration, we’re giving these individuals a real chance to heal and lead productive lives instead of compounding their addiction when serving time.

A big part of the problem is that drugs are often rampant in America’s prisons. If they’re not brought in through visits with family or friends, inmates will save up their “legal” prescription pills handed out every day to sell or trade them with other inmates. There’s also a thriving black market of homemade concoctions.

The environment inside prison is also likely toxic. Put a bunch of untreated alcoholics, drug addicts and violent criminals together, and what could possibly go wrong?After all, when you’ve got a raging addiction, nothing but time and nearly nothing to lose, why not snort whatever you can get your hands on?

Drug education rather than treatment is the most common service provided to prisoners who are addicts. Though 65 percent of the nation’s inmates meet medical criteria for substance abuse and addiction, only 11 percent have received treatment. A survey of prison medical directors suggested that most are not aware of the benefits of using medication with treatment; when treatment is offered, it usually consists of only behavioral counseling and/or detoxification without follow-up.

The lack of treatment, instant and often horrendous detox symptoms and an environment where troubled individuals feed off one another’s insidious ideas and behavior is a recipe for disaster. Here in Oklahoma, where meth is a popular drug of choice, I’ve worked with many people who go to prison for a small possession and leave knowing how to cook it.

Indeed, more often than not, drug offenders come out of prison worse than they went in, and life behind bars becomes a revolving door. After my second time in jail, one corrections officer called out as I was leaving, “We’ll see you soon, Jake!”

But that was assuming I’d even survive being back on the street. Evidence shows that the risk of overdose is significantly higher immediately after a person with a substance use disorder is released from prison. With zero treatment, most spend all of their time inside jonesing hard for a fix, and their first priority when they get out is to get messed up. They use the same amount as before they went in, but because their tolerance is much lower, many accidentally OD.

When you’re mired in addiction, your entire existence revolves around getting the next hit. You simply can’t see another way. Luckily, the treatment I underwent to avoid a 15-year sentence gave me the tools to realize that not only was I suffering from a disease, but I had the positive coping mechanisms to manage that disease.

Image: Jake Archer
Jake Arther, celebrating 2,616 days of sobriety.Courtesy Jake Archer

Recovery showed me that life can be beautiful, that there’s more to it than just hustling to get a fix. I’ve been clean for over seven years and have worked in the addiction treatment field ever since, opening 25 sober living homes in Oklahoma where we help people like me rebuild their lives.

We owe it to the nearly 50,000 people serving time for drug possession and to the untold numbers yet to be arrested to give them the same chance I got to turn their lives around. Oregon is helping to lead the way. Now it’s time for more states to follow.