Carrots, Sticks and Problem Drug Use: Law Enforcement’s Contribution to the Policy Discourse on Drug Use & the Opioid Crisis
43 Pages Posted: 3 Sep 2020 Last revised: 5 Sep 2020
Date Written: October 23, 2019
Despite the growing support for the idea that problem drug use should be treated like a chronic medical disease, some law enforcement interest groups, including trial court judges associations, prosecuting attorneys associations, and police associations (“law enforcement groups” or “criminal justice actors”), continue to argue for the use of the criminal justice system to address the nation’s drug crises. The justification for the use of the criminal justice system to oversee the psychological and medical treatment of persons with substance use disorders (SUDs) is based on the belief that persons with SUDs are deviants, who cannot refrain from engaging in sinful behavior. Therefore, punishment, or the threat thereof, is needed to deter the deviants’ immoral conduct and to ensure that the deviants comply with treatment.
The empirical evidence that supports the efficacy of coerced and compulsory treatment is underwhelming, at best, and ineffective, at worst. Furthermore, treatment outcomes for persons with SUDs enrolled in substance abuse treatment without the threat of incarceration are equal to, if not superior than, those under supervision of the criminal justice system. Despite the empirical literature, some law enforcement groups continue to make statements, underscored with assured certainty, that the threat of incarceration is a necessary tool to treat SUDs and to address the nation’s current opioid crisis.
In this article, I explore how public law enforcement groups use narratives to define problem drug use as a criminal justice issue in the wake of the opioid crisis. In doing so, I explain the motivations behind law enforcement groups’ continued support for the criminal justice approach, despite the efforts to redefine problem drug use as a health issue. Using theories of interest group behavior, I argue that law enforcement groups’ support of the criminal justice approach is a result of their attempts to protect and further the interests of their members, attorneys, judges, and police personnel who rely heavily on state and federal budget allocations for survival. I will demonstrate that narratives supported by law enforcement groups in the discourse surrounding the opioid crisis position these criminal justice actors as “fixers” of the drug problem and, in doing so, encourage the allocation of funding and resources necessary to carry out their duties as problem fixers. I will further show how some law enforcement groups have justified their continued roles as fixers of problem drug use, but have done so on a spectrum, suggesting that at least some law enforcement groups have acknowledged the need to re-envision their perceived role in addressing problem drug use.
Keywords: law enforcement, opioid crisis, opioid epidemic, law, health policy, health law, drug policy, narratives, framing, interest groups
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