OK, so you're rich and famous and have a drug problem. You relapse and get arrested. What do you do? It seems the latest trend in countering your likely conviction is not hiring a "dream team" of legal defenders but immediately enrolling in a rehab drug program. Lindsay Lohan, the troubled Hollywood starlet, joins a host of other high-profile celebrities, including Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie and the son of the former vice president, Al Gore III, who have adopted this novel strategy.
Lohan's pal, Paris, just did a brief stint in jail for driving with a suspended license after a previous drunk-driving arrest.
Nicole Richie recently pleaded guilty to driving under the influence from an incident where she was caught driving the wrong way down a Los Angeles freeway last year. She was sentenced to four days in jail and mandated to enter a drug and alcohol program.
Gore was recently arrested for speeding down a highway in his Prius at 100 miles per hour with a small amount of marijuana and a pocket full of different prescription pills. He pleaded guilty to two felony counts of drug possession, among others, and was allowed to enter a drug diversion program. If Gore successfully completes that program, the charges may be dropped.
The role of drugs and drug addiction loom large over these individuals' criminal cases since each enrolled in rehab quickly after their brushes with the law.
Without question, rehab is an essential tool on the road to recovery. It is a multi-tiered, long-term process that enables changes to life patterns that typically trigger the urge to get high. This requires time and effort by the participant.
Lohan was only out of rehab for two weeks when she was busted again for driving under the influence and cocaine possession. Her father, Michael, himself a former addict, was recently released after serving a two-year sentence for a drunk-driving incident. He said his daughter needs a long-term treatment plan to successfully recover from her problems with alcohol and other drugs.
Many were quick to blame the rehab center Lindsay attended, saying it failed her. But no rehab center can produce miracles in such a short period of time.
What most fail to realize is that relapse is an expected part of recovery. Treatment is valid for fighting the demons of addiction and an effective tool in overcoming the government's use of incarceration and punitive measures in response to low-level, nonviolent drug law offenses stemming from addiction.
According to Justice Department statistics, the United States holds a firm lead in maintaining the most prisoners of any country in the world -- now at 2.2 million and rising, and last year recorded the largest increase in the number of people in prisons and jails since 2000. Criminal justice experts attribute the exploding U.S. prison population to harsh sentencing laws and record numbers of drug law offenders, many of whom have substance abuse problems.
Should we treat drug addiction as a criminal matter or a medical problem? For most people, treatment is much more effective than imprisonment for breaking their addictions, yet our prisons are full of drug-addicted individuals. Nonviolent drug offenders should be given an opportunity to receive treatment, not jail time, for their drug use. This would be a more effective (not to mention much more affordable) solution for the individual and the community.
Our 30-plus-year war on drugs has stifled the open debate this country should be having about addiction and how best to deal with it. It is time to treat addiction for what it is, a medical problem, not a criminal one. Even for celebrities who rely on a trend to bail them out and continue driving down that road to oblivion.
Anthony Papa is a communications specialist for the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York group working to reduce the harms of both drug misuse and drug prohibition.