News reports from California since the enactment of Proposition 47 in the November 2014 elections have brought to light an interesting relationship between drug rehab treatment and the legal consequences — or lack thereof — of living as a drug addict. In last year’s elections, the voters of California approved Prop 47, a measure which reduces the punishment for most drug crimes in that state. Provided that it is a “non-serious and nonviolent” drug crime, the offense has in most cases been reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor. The difference between these two grades of crime can be enormous in terms of the ramifications for someone who is convicted. A misdemeanor carries a sentence of no more than one year in jail, and though it does act as a stain on one’s criminal record, it is nowhere near as crippling as a felony conviction. When a person is convicted of a felony, he or she stands to be punished with a year or more — sentences may range into the decades — in prison. The fines can reach the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. The doors to a wide variety of types of employment may be closed, and a felony can even mean that the person loses certain rights including the right to vote. A felony conviction can also threaten one’s immigration legal status, leading to deportation proceedings, detention and removal.
Drug Courts and Proposition 47
With the introduction of Prop 47 on the scene in California, there is now far less to fear for someone facing the possibility of arrest, prosecution and conviction for a drug crime. Now, a drug user does not have to worry about all of the dire consequences that he or she would have in years past. Because of this, there is also a concern that fewer people will seek help through rehab. This is due to the fact that a large number of rehab patients in the past have been people who arrived there through the drug court system. In recognition of the fact that drug crimes are driven largely by addiction rather than criminal intent, the courts in California and many other states have established diversion systems in which a person convicted of certain drug-related offenses may avoid routine sentencing and punishment by instead pursuing alternative sentencing, also known as drug court. Instead of jail, the person has the option to go to rehab, and upon successful completion of the program, he or she can then essentially walk free. It is not the type of life-changing epiphany or rock-bottom moment that sends many people to rehab, but it is nevertheless a sufficient motivation to get the process started. Countless lives have been saved from addiction by this route, but that could be changing now in California, and in other states that may follow the example of the Golden State as is so often the case. Indeed, it appears that the trend is already shifting. In a news release published by Chapters Capistrano, a high-end drug rehab center in Southern California, and Orange County courts official is quoted as saying that only 15 people were evaluated for eligibility for the drug court system in that jurisdiction in December of 2014, compared with an average of 50 per month prior to the passing of Prop 47.
How Prop 47 Affects the Future of the Drug Addiction Epidemic
If fewer people are concerned about avoiding the legal consequences of a drug arrest in California, and if this means that fewer will seek the help that they need to get sober. An arrest for possession of drugs may no longer put the person between a rock and a hard place, forcing him or her to make drastic changes to get sober or go to prison. With prison time and a felony conviction no longer acting as the whip hand to force the person to get clean and sober, more drug addicts in California will likely be indifferent to the threat of law enforcement involvement, and will simply continuing to use drugs after an arrest and release. It is still far too early to predict what kind of impact this could have in the long run, but it is conceivable that the rates at which drug users enter rehab and get sober could likely reduce over the coming years. With this, we could see a concurrent increase in the numbers of people dying of overdose, as their addiction goes untreated and they continue to abuse until the day they die. Similarly, we could see rising rates of drug-related crime, as addicts resort to theft, prostitution and violence to feed their addiction. Law enforcement has never been the total answer to the drug addiction epidemic, but it undeniably has provided a bulwark to limit the spread of drug abuse and to motivate addicts to get clean. By removing this line of defense, the door is opened for drugs to have their way with the population to a much greater degree than has previously been the case.
Do drug addicts avoid rehab out of fear of legal consequences?
On the other side of the issue surrounding Proposition 47 and what it means for public health in California and nationwide is the reality that a fear of legal consequences does prevent some people from seeking help. Drug courts work well as a way out for people who have already been caught, but what about those who have never yet been arrested, and who stand to lose greatly as they face the loss of a clean criminal record? The most recent statistics find that there are roughly 20 million Americans who currently meet the criteria for a substance abuse disorder, but of these only about 2 million get into treatment in a given year. How many of the 90% who do not get into rehab are holding off out of fear of legal consequences? However much a person stands to lose at the risk of being found out and getting caught breaking the law, it is nothing compared with all that is at stake in the battle to get sober. Possibly losing a job and suffering a tarnished reputation is nowhere so dire a consequence as the threat of losing everything and everyone that one loves and possibly even dying of overdose. Furthermore, holding off on getting into rehab out of fear of legal consequence is only a matter of procrastination. Continuing to live as an addict is all but guaranteed to end up in the same place, a state of ruin which may be caused by an arrest, divorce, estrangement from family, homelessness or overdose. There really is no sense in delaying rehab.
Getting into rehab does not necessarily mean that one will be found out by the cops, either. Though many people who go to rehab are there because they were arrested and are getting sober to stay out of jail, there is not actually any established relationship between rehab centers and law enforcement such that everyone who goes to rehab ends up being reported to the police. Under most circumstances, a person can safely check into rehab without any concern of having it affect his or her criminal record in any way. Proposition 47 may have removed the incentive for many people to get into rehab through the drug courts, but if anything it should make it easier for more people to seek treatment. Though it was already safe from a legal standpoint for a person to check into rehab, now that there is far less concern about the consequences of being caught, those who want to get sober should have far less anxiety about doing so.