The Goldendale Sentinel - Headlines & History since 1879

By Johanna Roe
Guest Commentary 

It's time to realize that the signs just don't do the job


Recently a number of large signs have been posted around Klickitat County. In stark language and bright colors they warn drug dealers and users they need to leave Klickitat County or go to jail.

Unfortunately, these kinds of dire anti-drug messages have never worked to prevent or eliminate drug use. If these messages worked, we wouldn’t have any drug problems—we could simply issue threats or ultimatums and drug use would stop. Running someone out of town or locking them up in the local hoosegow doesn’t solve the problem. It just temporarily moves it into the next county, or creates costly problems for the county jail staff.

Countries like China, Iran, Singapore, and Turkey regularly execute drug dealers, yet they still continue to have high amounts of drug related problems. What is really going on?

When researchers began to study addictive behavior in the 1930s, people hooked on drugs were considered morally defective, selfish, and simply lacking in willpower. Those views, based on myths and misunderstandings, shaped society’s responses to drug abuse, treating it as an individual’s moral failing. Addicts were just weak and lazy. This led to an emphasis on punishment, shame, and rejection, which still continues to this day. As of May 2016, nearly half (46 percent) of all inmates in federal prisons were there on non-violent drug related charges. The cost is staggering and unsustainable, both in public tax dollars, broken families and troubled communities.

Today our understanding of addiction and other substance use disorders is changing dramatically. Revolutionary discoveries about the brain have increased our knowledge of compulsive drug use, enabling us to develop far more successful treatments and responses.

Addiction is now understood to be a chronic, relapsing brain disease. It is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. Brain imaging studies of people struggling with addiction clearly show physical changes in areas of the brain critical to judgment, decision making, learning, memory, and behavior control. These brain changes are what often lead to the harmful and destructive behaviors seen in people who abuse drugs.

This does not excuse the behavior, but it does help explain it. Drug use can and does lead to criminal behavior and that most definitely needs to be punished. It’s what is driving the drug use that needs to be addressed.

Why do people use drugs in the first place? It’s not just low-income or creepy street people who use. For some it starts with simply trying to relieve chronic pain and suffering. Opioids, known for reducing pain, are vastly over-prescribed. Opioids work by attaching to proteins in the brain, spinal cord, and gastrointestinal tract called opioid receptors. Although the effects of opioids may be pleasurable, the constant interference with natural brain chemicals can result in a person’s brain not being able to function normally.

Research into ACEs, or Adverse Childhood Experiences, shows that people who have experienced abuse, neglect, abandonment, violence or other harmful events as children are often drawn to use drugs. Children living with someone addicted to drugs are more likely to use drugs. Traumatic stress in childhood is being linked more definitively to substance abuse in teens and adults.

The brain science behind ACEs research shows us that people can’t plan or consider a future unless they’re using their thinking brain instead of their survival brain, and to do that, they have to feel safe. Expecting them to abandon alcohol or drugs and to “straighten out” in a few days or even a few weeks or months is unrealistic. Even worse, banishing people in treatment because of a relapse is akin to telling a cancer patient they can’t come in for further medical care because their tumor returned.

The programs that have greatest success first provide a safe and stress-free environment for those who are addicted—and then, when they feel safe enough to start thinking about their future, provide assistance and information about how to rebuild their lives. Perhaps posting signs that offer community resources and assistance rather than stern warnings and threats would move us forward towards meaningful help and support for all those affected.


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