Treatment or Prison for Drug Addicts and Alcoholics? – Part 1

This is a follow up to the article “Waukesha County Heroin Overdose Cases Continue to Climb”.  This short article raises the question of whether treatment or prison is the best option for dealing with alcoholics and drug addicts.  Although I strongly agree that addicts and alcoholics who engage in criminal behavior must be imprisoned to protect society from their antisocial behaviors, I am also a proponent to “treating” addicts rather than simply locking them up and warehousing them to become better criminals and a perpetual drain on Wisconsin tax payers.

If you have any thoughts or opinions, please feel free to provide them in the poll and comment section below.  We’d love to hear your opinion.

The Real Deal

In most life situations it can be difficult to truly understand something unless you experience it for yourself.  Trying to understand why an alcoholic or drug addict continues to drink alcohol or use drugs is baffling. Fortunately I have a friend that has personal knowledge and experience in this area to help shed some light on this troubling paradox.

For the sake of maintaining his anonymity I will refer to him as “William”.


Before I delve into this topic I feel obligated to address one critical fact that is the backbone to the often debated issue of whether or not alcoholism (and drug addiction) is a disease.  In Wisconsin the Legislature and the Supreme Court have clarified this issue.  Whether or not I personally believe alcoholism and/or addiction to be a disease is no different than my view that the speed limit should or should not be 65mph.  Wisconsin’s policy on this matter is law and I am bound to it until it is changed through legislative fiat.

Wisconsin Legislature

Under Chapter 51 of the Wisconsin Statutes entitled, “STATE ALCOHOL, DRUG ABUSE, DEVELOPMENTAL DISABILITIES AND MENTAL HEALTH ACT”, the Wisconsin legislature dictates the following public policy of our state:

§51.01 Definitions. As used in this chapter, except where otherwise expressly provided:

(1) “Alcoholic” means a person who is suffering from alcoholism.

(1m) “Alcoholism” is a disease which is characterized by the dependency of a person on the drug alcohol, to the extent that the person’s health is substantially impaired or endangered or his or her social or economic functioning is substantially disrupted. (Emphasis supplied)

(8) “Drug dependent” means a  person who uses one or more drugs to the extent that the person’s health is substantially impaired or his or her social or economic functioning is substantially disrupted

Wisconsin Supreme Court

“Alcoholism is a disease.  It’s diagnosis is a matter of expert medical opinion proved by a physician and not by a layman.”  State v. Freiburg, 135 Wis.2d 480, 484, 151 N.W.2d 1 (1967).


One Addicts Account of Success

I have had long discussions with William and he has given me great insights into alcoholism and drug addiction from his personal experiences.  His story is very sad, yet the fact that he has managed to maintain sobriety for a couple decades is very inspiring and hopeful.

William shared that the “disease” concept of alcoholism (and drug addiction) was the pivotal moment in his recovery from active addiction.  Despite having been through several detox and treatment programs, both in prison and in the community, it was not until he accepted the fact that his problem was part of his biological makeup by virtue of it being a disease.  It was only then that he was finally able to stop drinking and using drugs after more than 25 years:

When I saw my condition from the perspective of it being a disease like epilepsy, diabetes or cancer, an element that I had no control over,  something meshed and I realized that this is something I’m going to have to live and proactively deal with for the rest of my life.  I had one of two choices: Either I am going to allow it to kill me or I am going to take necessary steps to stop it and keep it in remission.

In Step 1 of Alcoholics Anonymous there is an invisible component that requires me to accept the fact that I am alcoholic.  Mysteriously, without acceptance I am doomed to act on my involuntary compulsion to pick up that first drinkSimply admitting that I am alcoholic is not enough.  Once I wholeheartedly accepted my disease the desire and compulsion to drink left me and I have not picked up a drink or used drugs since.

William explained to me that for many years he wanted to quit drinking and using drugs but nothing ever worked.  He went to inpatient and outpatient treatment and was able to stay sober for brief periods with the tools that treatment provided. However, for some reason the desire and compulsion remained.  Even after several years in prison with no alcohol or drugs, within weeks of release he found himself staring into the bottom of a whisky bottle wondering how he had failed himself again.  Whether treatment or prison offered a structured reprieve, before too long William would find himself drinking and using again because he wasn’t regularly attending meetings and working the steps.  He put it this way: “When you try so hard to fight this thing inside and you ultimately relapse, the level of humiliation and shame is so intense that you feel absolutely hopeless and you give in because it is the only way you know how to deal with such pain and/or rejection...”

William referred to 12-step meetings as his “medicine”, and he elaborated that he needs his medicine just like a cancer patient needs radiation therapy. People who are not alcoholics or addicts do not understand the powerlessness of the disease. The only people who understand this baffling experience are other alcoholics and addicts.  Ironically it is these individuals who were once hopeless at one point of their lives who unite [at A.A. meetings] to share their experience, strength and hope that the program of A.A. offers.  There is some type of magic at these meetings that carries these once doomed people through another day without using drugs or alcohol.  I asked if there was some secret to the process of recover and William explained that, “In almost any meeting you will hear recovering people state that alcoholism is a thinking disease, not a drinking disease.  Alcohol was the solution to our problem of not being able to live life on life’s termsSimply taking the drug out of the equation without addressing the problem is futile

I asked William why he believed that treatment programs and prison had failed and he explained that treatment programs in the prison system are limited and do not fully grasp the 12 steps of A.A.  He made it clear that it was not until he regularly attended A.A. meetings and worked the 12 steps that he was able to grasp the simple principles of how recovery works.  “I never gave recovery a fair chance by actually working the steps and giving the program time to work in my life. Jail and prison do not offer sufficient support for us addicts.”


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