Addiction: It’s Not a Crime, It’s a Chronic Disease

By Thomas G. Kimball, Ph.D., LMFT

Addiction: It’s Not a Crime, It’s a Chronic Disease

We’ve all read the headlines.  

Drugs reportedly found strapped under woman’s vehicle
Vehicle search uncovers pot, coke, heroin, and meth
Jail inmate dies of suspected overdose
Inmate dies of dehydration in holding cell while detoxing from opioids

What drives someone to use illegal substances, sell drugs and use them until they stop breathing? Someone would have to be out of their mind to face the reality of a ruined life, prison and sometimes death. And that’s the point.  

The tragedy is that for the most part, society continues to treat the chronic brain disease of addiction, and its subsequent behavior, as criminal. Many see those who are dependent on drugs as people who have no moral principles, are reckless, lazy and lacking the willpower to stop using or to change their behavior. Individuals who use drugs or engage in the illegal behavior surrounding drug use are truly not in their right mind. It may appear that they are being bad and morally corrupt, but the reality is they are sick and their disease is manifesting in front of us. They have a chronic and problematic illness.  

Compelling research conducted by smart, savvy researchers has helped us to understand that addiction is a disease of the brain. These scientists have identified both biological and environmental factors related to the disease in order to help understand it, prevent it and treat it. The conclusion of their findings is powerfully summarized by the National Institute on Drug Abuse:   

Addiction is a chronic, often relapsing brain disease that causes compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences to the addicted individual and to those around him or her. . . the brain changes that occur over time challenge an addicted person’s self-control and hamper his or her ability to resist intense impulses to take drugs (National Institute on Drug Abuse; Advancing Addiction Science). 

Criminalizing drug use behavior rather than offering meaningful help is most often experienced by those who are marginalized in our society—the economically poor and racial minorities. A 2015 study examining the demographics of drug offenders held in federal prisons demonstrates very telling findings. Researchers reported that in 2012, 94,678 offenders in federal prison were serving sentences for drug offenses. Almost all of these inmates were incarcerated for trafficking with the predominant drug being cocaine. Thirty-five percent of these drug offenders had no, or minimal, criminal histories prior to being sentenced. Yet, despite having no prior criminal histories, the average length of sentence was 11 years. The researchers also reported that 76% of all federal prisoners incarcerated for trafficking were either Black or Hispanic.  

The financial toll on our society to warehouse low level users and traffickers is staggering.   Estimates of the annual cost of incarcerating a person is $31,000 (Federal Bureau of Prisons, 2015). That equates to a total cost of $32,285,198,000 spent over the next 11 years to incarcerate federal drug offenders and $32 billion spent on federal prisoners with drug offenses alone.   

Several years ago, I met a young man in a small support group meeting. Initially I was impressed by his large stature and ready smile. He, as well as his peers, were new members of our collegiate recovery community at Texas Tech. I had the privilege to lead the discussion for these students in their first semester as they made the often difficult transition into higher education.  As we sat together, I explained that I am not a person in recovery, but work with the community as a mental health professional, professor and support person. This is always a difficult disclosure, as I worry how my students will react to their “normi” professor—normi is a common term for someone who is not in addiction recovery. Sensing my apprehension, this large young man put his arm around me reassuringly and said, “That’s ok Dr. Tom, I’m junky enough for the both of us.” My relief at his acceptance of me and the subsequent laughter from everyone set the tone for our semester together.      

Prior to his entering our community, this young man had spent three years in prison for using and trafficking offenses. Being locked up was not easy for him, although he tried to make the best of it. He did his best to find recovery. Over time, he took advantage of opportunities to complete his undergraduate degree, a master’s degree and ultimately a Ph.D. – he is far from “junky.” Today he is a model citizen, a powerful teacher, a mental health professional, a husband, a father and a great friend.   

He is one of the fortunate ones who found a better life. Most people with his circumstances never get that opportunity, and a staggering 77% of drug offenders are arrested and incarcerated again (see National Institute of Justice). This 77% is evidence of a failed system that tends to warehouse individuals rather than help them rehabilitate and heal.            

We need to open our eyes to a more effective way to address addiction and the behavioral side effects that accompany it. The 32 billion in tax dollars could be used to combat addiction rather than to lock up individuals struggling with a chronic illness. There are many potential model citizens, teachers, professionals, mothers/fathers and friends wasting away in prison with little chance for hope and meaningful opportunity. Why not help sick people get better and give them the opportunity to live happy, fulfilled lives?  

Dr. Kimball serves as the Director of the Center for Collegiate Recovery Community and holds the George C. Miller Family Regents Professorship at Texas Tech University. He is the Clinical Director for Map Health Management. Dr. Kimball is co-author of the book, Six Essentials to Achieve Lasting Recovery, Hazelden Press. 


Federal Bureau of Prisons (2015).

National Institute on Drug Abuse; Advancing Addiction Science.

National Institute of Justice

Taxy, S, Samuels, J., & Adams, W. (2015).  Drug Offenders in Federal Prison:  Estimates of Characteristics based on linked data.  Special Report, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.