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The United States of America is facing its most serious drug epidemic in the history of our nation. It is a public health crisis so devastating that it’s forced a paradigm shift on addiction and is changing our ideas about disease and modern medicine.

According to the mortality rates from the National Center for Health Statistics, more Americans died from accidental overdoses of opioids in 2018 than from car accidents. Over 59,000 people lost their lives last year because of personal addictions, illegally imported fentanyl, and greedy pharmaceutical companies, content with trading lives for a healthy bottom line.

In addition to record-high overdoses, taxpayers are burdened by overcrowded prisons, hospitals are inundated with drug-related admissions, families are being torn apart, and many communities are now ravaged by the effects of this narcotic.

Opium has been used as a healing medicine and folk remedy for thousands of years, but from the very beginning, people have gotten hooked by its powerful effects. When opium smoking was introduced into China in the 1600s, serious addiction problems arose in the leisure classes and poor alike. In current times, we’re faced with a new dilemma, but the same old story. In 2018, it was estimated that over three million Americans were addicted to heroin and other opium-based products.

Law enforcement agents have shut down “pill mills” in many states, while lawmakers have put pressure on overzealous doctors who prescribe excessive painkillers. Aggressive Big Pharma sales campaigns that coerce medical offices to prescribe copious amounts of addictive medicines, are now shunned.

Yet, there still remains an obscured issue that the American people have not been talking about: the mass incarceration of drug addicts in a failed criminal justice system.

As a result of the opioid epidemic and after years of locking up drug users for long periods of time, correctional institutions throughout the country have depleted their resources and drained their budgets while law enforcement officers fight the same ineffective War on Drugs. Our country’s jails and prisons now hold an estimated 2.3 million men and women – many of whom are first-time, nonviolent drug addicts who have committed minor crimes such as theft, dealing in stolen property, prostitution, and fraud in an effort to support their addiction. Because of this, overcrowding in many institutions has led to excessive violence and sexual assaults, and authorities have reached a point of crisis in many states.

There’s no doubt that these crimes must carry appropriate punishments, but the majority of the time treatment is not even presented as a viable option. In certain states like California, Texas, and Florida, over half of the inmate population is incarcerated for drug-related offenses that carry long mandatory minimum sentences, oftentimes followed by nearly unattainable conditions upon probation or release.

I am not advocating for a free pass for drug addicts who commit crimes to support their habits, but I do think that rehabilitation and shorter prison sentences need to become part of the national conversation if we ever want to distance ourselves from the draconian sentencing laws now in place.

My family and I can personally attest to the real damage caused by prescription pain pill and cocaine abuse.

I am currently serving a ten-year, mandatory sentence in the Florida Department of Corrections as a repeat offender. I accept full responsibility for the nonviolent property crimes I’ve committed, and I know that I’ve hurt my victims and my own family emotionally and financially because of the bad choices I made.

I’ve changed my life now, but my addiction used to be a force to be reckoned with. I would have done almost anything to avoid detoxing and the dope sickness that followed.

Opiates produce a feeling of pleasure and euphoria, but continued use builds up tolerance, and my body demanded larger amounts of the drug to reach the same sense of well-being.

Withdrawal is extremely grueling, and I continued taking the drugs to avoid getting dopesick and to attain the elusive sense of euphoria I had once felt. My withdrawal symptoms were unbearable: restless leg syndrome, chills, anxiety, insomnia, nausea, sweating, cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, and fever, all for days on end.

Although the synthetic narcotics Methadone and Suboxone offered me some relief from withdrawal, they were also addictive. Additionally, the clinics who provided these synthetic alternatives only took cash and charged exorbitant fees for the medicines. The prices were so high that most addicts could not afford the treatment. Complete recovery required years of social, physical, and psychological rehabilitation.

I’m a recovering addict. I understand desperation at its most vulnerable depths and empathize with the millions of humans struggling with dependency.

Although I was raised by a loving family in a supportive environment, that didn’t’ stop me from falling down this rabbit hole. Upper-class or lower-class, it really doesn’t matter. Opioid addiction is a physical and habitual compulsion that doesn’t discriminate between race, class, age, or gender.

This disease knows no boundaries. From celebrity-studded Rodeo Drive to the ghettos of North Philly; from the majestic mountains of Oregon to the craggy hills of West Virginia; from the vast plains of Oklahoma to the muddy swamps of a trailer park in Florida… no one is safe from this heartache.

Maybe one day these problems of addiction and mass incarceration will really hit home for someone in power, with the authority to make sweeping changes to the criminal justice system.

Until then, we can only hope that our society elects pragmatic legislators and judges who will listen to the voices of reason and stop this madness once and for all.

Opium continues to destroy lives throughout our great country, and we must find a middle path that benefits us all.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Ryan M. Moser is a formerly incarcerated journalist and award-winning writer from Philadelphia. A PJP correspondent, Ryan holds reporting fellowships from both resolve Philly and the education writers association. His work can be found at Muck Rack.