Date of Award

Spring 2023

Document Type

Term Paper


School of Unrestricted Education

Primary Advisor

Dr. Grace Veach


Over thirty million people worldwide suffer from diagnosed drug-use disorders. In the United States alone, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found in the 2020 National Survey of Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) that of people aged 12 or older, over 40 million reported struggling with substance abuse at some point in their life. Alarming statistics suggest that rates of drug abuse continue to rise worldwide. Drug use is a recognized epidemic in the United States, and it is far from a recent issue. Health professionals, government officials, and researchers have been trying to solve the problem for decades. That may seem discouraging when faced with the fact that current methods of preventing and treating substance abuse disorders have proven ineffective. However, there are mountains of optimistic evidence, both old and new, in the United States and worldwide to suggest that the goal of lessening drug abuse is finally tangible. The research and resources are all available to be able to make the necessary changes and solve the problem. But none of these changes can be implemented until drug addiction is recognized as a mental health problem, not a criminal justice problem. This shift in mentality is crucial if any real progress is to be made. But once it has, the United States can significantly improve the prevention and treatment of substance abuse disorders. This improvement is possible if three questions are answered: How can substance abuse disorders be prevented? How is intervention possible so those who desire help can seek it? And lastly, how can methods of rehabilitation be improved to ensure that sobriety is sustainable? The United States can improve in the area of prevention by focusing on the development of stronger communities and increasing education on the dangers of illicit substances. Both have proven effective, especially in adolescence, as methods of preventing drug use. The United States can improve in the area of intervention by making it easier and safer for those with substance abuse disorders to seek help. This can be done by working to destigmatize and decriminalize drug use. Combs 2 When drug use is destigmatized, it is easier for those affected to get help, as there is less of a fear of judgement and persecution from peers. When drug use is decriminalized, it is safer to get help because addicts don’t have to worry about receiving jail time when what they need is effective care. Finally, the United States can improve in the area of rehabilitation by helping to provide support for community-based treatments and putting more funding into the research and development of medication-assisted treatment. Community-based programs, such as Narcotics Anonymous, are constantly mentioned (both in formal studies and as anecdotes) as one of the most effective ways for people to sustain their sobriety. Medication-assisted treatment can be helpful in weaning withdrawal symptoms, making it easier to quit. There is controversy surrounding the areas of decriminalization and medication-assisted treatment in terms of efficacy, but professionally have proven that the benefits of these two ideas far out way the harms. As a matter of fact, the decriminalization of illicit substances in Portugal was wildly successful and can act as a sort of case study for those debating the issue. Experts felt that there were a number of reasons people turn to drugs, and it was simply ineffective to treat it as a purely criminal problem. As a result of decriminalizing drugs, they saw a decrease in problematic drug use, recidivism, and HIV rates, and they did not see an increase in drug use as many feared they would, thus proving that this approach has been effective in other countries and can be effective in the United States as well. As stated before, substance abuse disorders are an epidemic in the United States. Drug overdoses account for nearly 100,000 deaths every year and it is estimated that nearly one million people have overdosed in the United States since 1999. Under the status quo, these numbers are rising. Substance abuse disorders can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, sexuality, religion, race, occupation, social status, or income bracket. To ignore this issue, or to continue to treat drug use as a criminal justice problem instead of a Combs 3 mental health problem is to ignore decades of science confirming that this is a treatable problem. It is a difficult issue. But difficult is not the same as impossible. The United States can significantly improve the prevention and treatment of substance abuse disorders.