It's time to change our addiction views

April 21, 2003|By Kurt L. Schmoke and Richard K. Willard

MOST AMERICANS agree it is wrong to have rules and laws that single out a person or group and treat them differently from the rest of the population simply because they have a disease.

But that is exactly what happens every day to people with alcohol and drug problems. Public and private laws and policies make getting appropriate medical care, housing, or jobs difficult -- frequently impossible -- even years after they have entered recovery.

For the past year, we have been part of a national panel reviewing these policies. Our group included a judge, prosecutors and defense attorneys, physicians, labor and business executives and advocates. We heard from people throughout the country about their experiences with discrimination. We took testimony from experts in effective alcohol and drug treatment. We weighed the safety concerns of employers, schools and communities with the needs of people in recovery to live full, productive lives.

As individuals, we represented the broad ideological divisions present in the country. Despite our differences, we were able to reach consensus on ways to change public and private policies that discriminate against people with alcohol or other drug disease.

First, policy should be based on the growing understanding that addiction is a disease.

In testimony, former first lady Betty Ford told us, "Still today I sometimes get the reaction of how could a nice person like me be an alcoholic. It is hard not to take it personally when I read public opinion polls of both professionals and the general public who believe addiction to be [more] a moral weakness than a disease. How could people still believe this?"

We should change the unfair differences in health insurance coverage and access to care for people seeking treatment for alcohol or drug disease. Many health insurance policies provide little or no coverage for alcohol or drug treatment.

If people do have coverage, they often face higher co-payments, deductibles and limits on the number of visits they can make to their doctors. Research shows that the longer people spend in treatment, the more likely they are to recover. But the limits placed by most health insurance coverage do not allow that recovery to happen, so people stay ill. Punishing them with inadequate treatment will not make them better.

Second, laws and policies targeted to people with alcohol or drug problems are often counterproductive. For example, the drug-free provision of the Higher Education Act denies federal financial aid to students with convictions for drug possession -- and not to people with any other conviction, including drunken driving and violent crimes like rape and murder.

Women with drug convictions are not eligible to receive welfare benefits after they leave jail, so they are unable to continue treatment or attend job training because they have no way to support themselves. Neither a youthful indiscretion nor a past criminal conviction should play a role in denying a person opportunities that will enable him or her to get a job and earn an honest living.

Our panel believes that the nation can change the policies that discriminate against people with alcohol or other drug problems without condoning illicit drug use or lowering safety standards in our communities, workplaces, and schools. In fact, we are convinced that if we stop discriminating and help people reclaim their lives, we will all be better off.

Kurt L. Schmoke, a former mayor of Baltimore, is dean of the Howard University School of Law. Richard K. Willard is senior vice president, legal and general counsel of the Gillette Co.

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