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Drug possession reform is long overdue

A substance-abuse counseling session is held at a nonprofit support center.
A substance-abuse counseling session is held at a nonprofit support center.
Bebeto Matthews, Associated Press

As substance-abuse treatment providers invested in the long-term success of people struggling with substance-use disorders, we are excited about the Justice Reinvestment legislation sponsored by Rep. Eric Hutchings and Sen. Stuart Adams.

The legislation, based on 18 recommendations made by the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, is the product of nearly a year of work and public input. The related research by the Pew Charitable Trust has given us Utah’s clearest picture yet of the intersections between our criminal justice and behavioral health systems.

Some recommendations would reduce Utah’s currently harsh penalties for simple drug possession. As professionals working with addicted people, we think these reforms are a critical step in the right direction.

Pew’s findings confirm that Utah’s current policies and practices are making things worse for people with substance-abuse disorders. Simple drug possession was the No. 1 offense for which new prisoners went to prison in Utah in 2013. Drug offenses make up 25 percent of all our prison admissions!

Some county prosecutors say that without the threat of a felony, people caught using drugs won’t be motivated to get treatment. They insist that “those people” won’t get clean unless they face a prison sentence.

This is simply not true.

Our clinics and sober-living facilities are full of people sufficiently motivated to seek treatment without facing criminal charges. We also treat many people motivated by misdemeanor charges, which carry the threat of up to a year in jail and substantial fines.

People do need to be held accountable for their actions — but consequences should be swift, certain and proportional to the action. Research shows that overly harsh consequences for drug offenders make them more likely to fail again.

A felony conviction, even without prison time, can be devastating. There are many professions from which a hardworking, fully recovered person will be barred for life — simply because she struggled at some point with addiction and caught a felony charge. Decent people struggle to find housing in a number of Utah cities simply because the criminal background check reveals a drug felony.

Our laws need to reflect what we now know about treating substance-use disorders, which are illnesses similar to other chronic health conditions like diabetes, hypertension and heart disease — they are managed but never cured. Clinical interventions can be effective, but they require constant vigilance from the patient and treatment team.

Almost everyone struggling to get clean will relapse, a situation common in the treatment of chronic health conditions. Recovery can be a long and bumpy road. Trips to prison and a felony record that shuts people out of jobs and housing only serve to make that road longer and much bumpier. But with adequate treatment, outcomes for people with substance-use disorders are equal to or better than those for people with other chronic medical conditions.

Drug offenders are our siblings, parents, co-workers and neighbors. Sometimes, we are drug offenders. More than 86,000 Utahns met criteria for a substance-use disorder in 2014. As many as 35 million Americans (more than 1 in 10) are in recovery from a substance-use disorder. People can and do get well.

The Justice Reinvestment legislation offers our loved ones more hope, more avenues to recovery, more support for success. Reforming our penalties for drug possession is long overdue, and we applaud Hutchings and Adams for sponsoring this bill.

Shawn McMillen is the executive director of First Step House. Santiago Cortez is the development director for clinical consultants and a member of the Utah Substance Abuse Advisory Council.