Gazette editorial: Prisons can’t cure drug curse

As he sat beside President Obama during the special conference on drug addiction, Charleston Police Chief Brent Webster said: “We cannot arrest our way out of this mess.”

Right on. That’s the key to America’s — and especially West Virginia’s — addiction and overdose nightmare.

Forty years of the “war on drugs” has crammed U.S. prisons and parole systems with millions of narcotics offenders — but addiction grows worse and worse. West Virginia is setting national records for overdoses and deaths. Families are ravaged, young lives are destroyed, and futures are wasted.

Obviously, the nation should consider addiction a medical problem and give priority to treatment, over arrest and imprisonment.

Statistically, America is the world’s most criminal nation, because it has far more convicted felons than other societies do. More than 2 million Americans are in prisons or jails, and around 5 million more are on parole or probation. This grotesque rate is five to 10 times worse than in other modern democracies.

Reform is in the wind. Some 130 top U.S. police chiefs, sheriffs and prosecutors have formed a coalition to reverse the lock-‘em-up mentality. It’s called Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration.

Co-chairman Ronal Serpas told National Public Radio that large police departments waste endless time processing and delivering small-time drug offenders. The suspects are “overwhelmingly just folks who have mental health or drug addiction problems [and] there’s no place else for them to go,” he said.

Serpas recommended “opening up more alternatives to incarceration, like mental health and sobriety centers.”

Another coalition leader, Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, said America should reduce drug arrests while intensifying illegal gun arrests. He said New York City made this shift “and the most amazing thing happened: Incarceration rates went down, gun seizures went down and murders went down, all at the same time.”

Superintendent McCarthy added: “If 26 percent are incarcerated for narcotics and less than 4 percent for guns, is that system doing what we need it to do?”

Millions of criminals carrying illegal pistols are a crime problem. Millions of addicts hooked on opiates are a medical problem. It’s time for America to learn the difference.

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