This last week, national headlines heralded the arrests of several Alabama doctors that were over-prescribing opioids, trading prescription drugs for sex, or selling them under the table for enormous illegal profits. No one can argue that if the allegations are true, law enforcement should be lauded for stopping these criminals who violated their professional oaths. However, we never hear about a substantive plan to help the patients who are addicted to these dangerous drugs.

Not much has significantly changed since Trump declared that the opioid crisis was a bona fide national emergency. Not much has changed in Alabama since Governor Ivey convened an opioid task force. People are still dying from overdoses daily. Prescription drugs and illegal drugs are everywhere and relatively cheap. In fact, the only major changes have been that it’s more difficult for people who are legitimately in pain management to get the medications they need. Also, with the strong focus on busting doctors who are overprescribing opioids, many patients find themselves turning to illegal drugs to stave off withdrawals if they can’t get a prescription right away.

It’s a good thing that pharmaceutical companies are being prosecuted and being held liable for deceptive marketing practices regarding these highly addictive drugs. Yet, we’re not putting the same amount of enthusiasm, resources, and dollars behind prevention and treatment efforts. Sadly, it’s been this way since Nixon first declared a War on Drugs in 1971. It’s also why we’re losing this war. It’s why we have a prison problem in Alabama and it’s a huge factor in why America has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

We’ve got to stop treating addiction as a crime. It’s a disease. Addicts need treatment. No one is saying that people shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions if they do criminal things while under the influence of illegal drugs, but evidence shows that treatment is the only way to break the stubborn cycle of recidivism. We’ve spent countless dollars on interdiction and incarceration, yet we’re not even close to solving the problem. Perhaps, the answer is to also put money and resources into prevention and treatment with the same type of enthusiasm.

Prevention and treatment will never garner the same type of headlines as a made-for-tv drug bust or shutting down an unethical doctor’s office, but it’s far more effective. In Alabama, we seem to think the only answer is to lock people up and throw away the key. It’s just not working, it never really has.

The thing about recovery from addiction is that it’s messy. People relapse and struggle and rarely get it right the first time. It requires a complete restructuring of one’s life and it takes time and real professional help. There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution for addiction, it requires individualized treatment and resources.  But, it’s worth it. Many people do recover from substance abuse and they lead productive lives. These miracles happen all the time, but they don’t get the same headlines and it’s not a talking point for politicians.

It’s past time for Alabama to get serious about its substance abuse problem. The answer isn’t going to be more money pouring into law enforcement and prisons. The answer has always been prevention and treatment. So, as we celebrate the prosecution of unethical doctors and pharmaceutical companies, we’ve got to help the people who have become addicts, often through no fault of their own.

It’s time to stop stigmatizing addicts and, instead, praise and encourage those who choose the hard path to recovery. Let’s focus on making treatment affordable and accessible. As they say in peer support groups, we can’t keep doing the same things over and over again and expect a different result.

Clete Wetli
Clete Wetli is former Chair of the Madison County Democrats and a liberal political activist.