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Reframing Addiction

Addiction isn’t easy to talk about, and it certainly isn’t easy to overcome.

In 2017, 19.7 million American adults struggled with addiction. In fact, you might know someone personally who has had to fight this battle. Many people do. People struggling with addictions are not strangers — rather, they are our friends, our family, our neighbors, and members of our community who deserve love and support through even the most difficult times…

But are they criminals?

Drug use is heavily criminalized in the US and has been for decades, despite the complexities of addiction, the failure of the criminal justice system to meet the needs of individuals battling addiction, and evidence which suggests the criminalization of drug use has done little to nothing in lowering rates of drug use nationwide.

So, it’s time to ask ourselves — how did we get here, and is there a better way?

Addiction as Criminal Behavior

In June of 1971, the United States was launched headfirst into what would become it’s longest and most expensive war ever — the War on Drugs. Drug use was deemed, by then president Richard Nixon, to be the public’s “number one enemy”. While many groups and legislators fought for the decriminalization of marijuana throughout the 70s, mass incarceration was ramped up in the 80s. Racially motivated hysteria around “crack” cocaine led to a spike in drug-related arrests — from 1980 to 1997, the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent drug use shot up from 50,000 to over 400,000. As of now, every 25 seconds someone in the US is arrested for drug possession; 1 out of every 5 inmates, 456,000 people, is currently behind bars for a drug offense.

Arkansas Drug Law

Arkansas, like much of the United States, has a substance abuse problem. We rank #1 in the nation for the number of people testing positive for meth, and the opioid crisis has hit our state hard with Arkansas ranked #2 for most over-prescriptions of opioid medications. In 2018, there were 67,367 drug overdose deaths reported in the US; for Arkansas, the number was 444. Nearly half of those deaths in Arkansas and 70% of those nationwide were caused by opioids.

So what are we doing in Arkansas to combat this problem, to fight this supposed war on drugs?

Well, as of right now, even the possession of drug paraphernalia alone can land an individual with a felony, and the possession of a Class VI drug, such as marijuana, can mean anywhere from 1 to 30 years in prison depending on the amount. For methamphetamine, one of the more common drugs in the state of Arkansas, the possession of less than two grams could result in up to 6 years in prison…

The Lasting Effects of Criminalization

The thing is — it isn’t working. Evidence shows us that the War on Drugs has had little to no impact on drug use in the United States. What we do have now is overcrowded jails and prisons, and increased mortality rates due to incarceration. Former inmates are about 13 times more likely to die in the first two weeks after their release than the general population.

The leading cause of death is overdose.

While struggling with addiction is already very difficult, jail time and the resulting criminal record can present even more complications as people try to rebuild their lives. Per 2020 data, 87,187 Arkansans were disenfranchised due to felonies. Criminal records also make it more difficult for these individuals to acquire housing and employment due to discriminatory background checks.

Additionally, studies show that many people who struggle with addiction also suffer from mental illness. In 2017, 8.5 Americans simultaneously experienced addiction and a mental health disorder. The issue of addiction is layered, and therefore cannot be treated by simply locking someone away and out of the public eye. There is trauma accompanying addiction, and experiencing imprisonment only increases the risk of exacerbated mental health issues and re-traumatization.

Is There Another Way?

It is time to ask ourselves if we are fighting a war against drugs or a war against addicts. Framing this issue as a war and pairing this violent imagery with violent, real-life manifestations in the policing of addicts only breeds more issues. It is not violence through which we will fix these problems, but love.

Individuals who struggle with addiction are not our enemies. On the contrary, often they are people we care deeply about, integral members of our community who are loved and needed — and who need our help. We must reframe the way we think about addiction in a way that focuses on the health and trauma needs of our communities.

More than anything, this is a public health crisis that demands treatment above punishment and investment in rehabilitation over incarceration.

Problems are not fixed with the lock of a jail cell or the ostracizing of members of our community. Too often people who need help are left alone in the dark. We know that doesn’t work. Kickstarting a healthy, sober lifestyle requires community — and caring, holistic programs that target all facets of an individual’s health and wellness.

Author: Angelena Pierce, U of A Department of English Graduate Student

Hear from our Residents

Is there anything you want people to know about addiction and/or people struggling with addiction?

There will come a point when the pain is so great and resources are exhausted. I had to reach that point, in conjunction with a solution. Only then was I finally able to accept help and step onto the path of recovery. No one could shame me into it. No amount of incentives or consequences could have persuaded me.

There are multiple pathways to recovery and there is one out there for each person struggling with addiction. There is no standard for sobriety or recovery, so each person’s path must be personal to them. I hope and pray that they keep trying and seeking out a way that works for them and that they build up a community of support because I don’t know where I would be without mine.

The most helpful thing to my recovery from addiction has been meetings, sponsorship, and being around people just like me with the same motives: a desire to stay clean and sober and to gain continuous lengths of sobriety.

Addiction isn’t just something people wake up and contemplate doing. It’s a slow breeze for some. It’s like going to sleep one night and everything is fine but waking up to be trapped in your bed by an uncountable amount of shadowy arms for a long time.

Thank You for your Support!

Thank you to each of our donors who contributed to our NWA Gives Campaign. We raised a total of $9,530 to help us complete a much needed renovation in one of the bathrooms at our new Aftercare House. A most heartfelt thank you to our matched donors: Hayden McIlroy, Dash Goff, Bill & Connie Clark, Brenda & Bob Gullett, and an anonymous donor for helping us exceed our goal!

Program Achievements

Our residents and staff remain safe and healthy. We are grateful to be able to continue serving women who have experienced trauma, addiction, and incarceration.

  • Our most senior resident paid off $8,000 in debt during her residency here. She is preparing to graduate and transition into an apartment in Fayetteville where both her and her son will reside.
  • Two of our resident’s obtained employment and moved into Phase 2.
  • One of our residents achieved 6 months of sobriety- the longest abstinence she’s experienced in over a decade.
  • One of our resident’s presented and passed her Phase 3 Portfolio!
  • We will welcome one new resident home this month. Want to contribute to her welcome basket? You can find a list of needed items here.

We are Grateful for our Community!

  • Thank you PEO Chapter AT for your generous donation of household items for our program. We appreciate your continued support!
  • We received several items from our MSH Residential Wish List this month. Every purchase from our wish list goes directly toward serving our residents and makes a significant difference in our program.
  • Thank you to the Bradberry Foundation for helping us purchase a beautiful riding lawnmower for our property. We have already taken it out for a spin twice and love being able to maintain the yard!
  • Thank you to the Willard and Pat Walker Charitable Foundation for providing grant support for our on-site Recovery Support Program.

New Graduate Wish List

Want to purchase a a housewarming gift for our graduates? We have started new wish list to support our resident graduates as they prepare to transition into the community. You can find a list of needed items here! Thank you to those who have already purchased items to help our next graduate settle into her new apartment!

Volunteer Opportunity

Looking for a volunteer opportunity? One of our resident bedrooms is in need of a refresh before we welcome two new women home from prison. We are looking for a group of folks willing to sponsor this bedroom with a fresh coat of paint and some new décor. Interested and want to learn more? Email