Criminal disease

Graphic by Haewon Ma

Freshmen will remember from Camp Yale that, on campus, alcohol is treated as a medical issue. This policy encourages students to report friends who are suffering from alcohol-related health problems. We are reassured that if we bring a student into Yale Health for fear of alcohol poisoning, no one will be disciplined. This policy has undoubtedly benefited Yale’s campus. No longer afraid of the consequences, several students I know have called Yale Health to help an excessively intoxicated friend, potentially avoiding disastrous scenarios. Yet, at Yale, use or possession of drugs other than alcohol results in disciplinary action (provided that they are not prescribed). In most cases, punishment for smoking weed is fairly lenient. Possession of other drugs, however, almost certainly results in severe legal consequences. This policy makes no sense. Yale ought to treat all drug-related offenses as medical issues, not warranting punishment.

Alcohol is simply one of many drugs categorized as a depressant. If alcohol consumption is indeed a “medical issue,” so is usage of any other drug. Yale’s illicit drug policy is especially nonsensical given its current alcohol policy. Drug use comes in two forms: casual use and addiction. Casual use on campus usually involves occasional marijuana smoking and is about as dangerous, if not less so, than drinking. It causes no harm to others and so should not be punished as if it does. Addiction to drugs is a personal health problem, not a crime intentionally committed against society. As such, punishment for drug addiction is also completely unwarranted. Punishing addicts produces no benefit for any party involved. An individual who finds a need to escape into the euphoria of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, Xanax, marijuana, codeine, or any other drug is not attempting to harm anyone in society. Rather, they are fulfilling a deeply personal and private need. That need is not solved by punishment. Indeed, punishment is more likely to enhance one’s need for drugs than diminish it. Many drugs act as a painkiller, an artificial way to deal with personal issues. Punishment via school suspension or expulsion greatly amplifies someone’s personal problems. For addicts, the perfect solution to those problems is an escape into the safe, light-hearted elation of a high. Thus punishment fuels drug usage, creating a vicious cycle of pills and pain. The unfortunate victims of addiction are locked into this cycle. Their recourse to drugs is a cry for help in a world where they happened to come up short. Their punishment is not only a failure to answer that call, but also a kick while they are down.

There is an obvious alternative to the current model of drug regulations. The basic outline of this is seen in Yale’s alcohol policy. Drugs are a medical issue. This sentence seems redundant since alcohol itself is a drug. Yet, the current rules don’t reflect this chemical categorization. Like students who drink excessively, students who are discovered to be using drugs ought to be required to go to Yale Health. If Yale Health deems it necessary, a student would be required to attend a rehabilitation program. Not all students will be diagnosed with an addiction just as not all students who go to Yale Health are alcoholics. However, for actual addicts, rehabilitation helps someone move past an addiction: it allows people who have fallen down to get back up and reconstruct a productive life. In the same way that mental health problems are treated with rehabilitation, addiction ought to be treated this way. This sentence seems redundant given that addiction is itself a mental health problem. Yet, unfortunately, our laws do not reflect this fact. It is obvious that we would not punish a person for suffering from ADHD, depression, schizophrenia or PTSD. Why, then, would we punish someone for suffering from addiction? Drug usage at Yale should be completely decriminalized. All drug issues should be treated as a health problem potentially requiring rehabilitation.

Whether rehabilitation is needed and the extent of that rehabilitation is at the discretion of a health professional. Light drug use, such as occasional smoking of marijuana, is unlikely to require rehabilitation. Like moderate drinking, moderate smoking does little harm to the user. Therefore, it ought to be allowed as a recreational activity akin to drinking alcohol. The common response to this position is that decriminalizing drugs will lead to an increase in usage. I find it hard to believe, however, that the illegality of drugs is what has motivated most abstainers to choose against usage. For most people, social and personal factors, rather than legality, motivate their decision regarding drugs. Furthermore, mandatory rehabilitation is an unpleasant prospect. The requirement of spending extended periods of time in a rehabilitation program is undoubtedly a strong deterrent. My argument is that not that drug usage should be free of consequence; just that it should be decriminalized. Yet, even if usage increases slightly, those users will have help under this policy. Conversely, if punishment is enforced, users risk expulsion, losing the opportunity to earn a college degree for a personal problem. If rehabilitation is put in place, all users have potential of breaking out of this habit completely. The result is that total usage is more likely to go down than up.

Mental health patients were once treated as criminals. Thankfully, our society has moved past that misunderstanding, yet one mental health issue was left behind. Drug dependence remains criminalized by our society. As a result, addicts are abused by a broken system, and casual users are punished for a harmless act. Our drug policies are reflective of an old mindset, one that restricts unconventional behavior. Not all deviance from the norm is criminal. Yale’s lenience on alcohol is simply the result of its mainstream use. Drug users should not be targeted for being atypical. Drug addicts are suffering from a condition that is not only devastating in itself, but also penalized by our society. These people deserve the opportunity to live a meaningful life. It’s time for us to extend recognition to drug addicts; it’s time to answer their call for help.

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