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Should a drug relapse on probation mean prison time?

Right now, Iowa and most jurisdictions deal with drug abuse almost exclusively through law enforcement. If you're caught with a prohibited drug, or one you don't have a prescription for, you can be arrested, charged and convicted of a criminal offense. In most cases, that means you'll be incarcerated -- with little to no access to drug treatment.

There is an argument to be made, however, that law enforcement is an ineffective way to stop the use of illegal drugs. Some experts argue for a "harm reduction" approach, which essentially means providing drug users with information, support and services geared toward reducing the harm illegal drugs can cause.

Harm reduction strategies are built on the assumption that addiction is a disease with a predictable progression and effects. Drug abusers aren't seen as criminals but people in need of treatment. Instead of a criminal record and jail time, the drug user might receive a visit from a social worker.

For now, however, we continue to rely on law enforcement to address illegal drugs. Yet virtually everyone in the world of psychology and addiction studies agrees that addiction is a disease. Shouldn't we try to take that into account when we deal with it?

Nowhere is the way we treat addiction more significant than when a person has been put on probation or parole and then relapses into illegal drug use. Should we bring the hammer down on addicts who relapse? Or should we offer more support and services?

Massachusetts considers reducing the penalties for relapse

The Appeal recently covered the case of a woman who was sent to jail after she stole jewelry to support her drug habit. She was ordered not to use drugs during her probation, and she took that order seriously. Not only did she voluntarily enter treatment, but she found one that offered Suboxone, a treatment medication that reduces the urge to use opioids.

She relapsed but fought on. She asked for a stronger dose of Suboxone. She managed to go for days and days without using fentanyl, to which she was addicted. But the one relapse meant a positive drug test and a return to prison. There, she had no access to any drug treatment, much less Suboxone.

She is currently lobbying for a new law in Massachusetts that would change the outcome for people like her. If the law passes, people who test positive for drugs on probation would be given a choice: prison or inpatient treatment. The positive drug test would no longer be enough to violate probation.

Experts say that relapse isn't a moral failing but an expected symptom of the disease of addiction. How can we begin treating it that way?

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