Opioid Addiction Requires Rehabilitation, Not Prison

Georgia, like most parts of the country, is battling an epidemic of opioid and heroin dependency, that, too often, has led to the untimely deaths of many Georgia citizens, including teens and young adults. Most people imagine this issue is primarily something metro-Atlanta is facing, but the state as a whole has seen the devastating impact of addiction.


Last year in Cobb County, 306 people died from overdoses. Fulton County had 359 fatalities that resulted from opioid addiction. Though residents don’t equate areas like Marietta and Alpharetta with high rates of drug use, they, along with the northern part of Atlanta, are part of the state’s “ heroin triangle.”

Patterns of drug dependency for the areas this triangle encompasses have been on the radar for officials since the 1990s, but more recent data reveals increasingly higher numbers. In fact, heroin-related deaths for Fulton, Gwinnett, Cobb and DeKalb counties have gone up an astronomical 3844%.


Because of the way in which the U.S. has criminalized drug use, most people don’t understand that addiction isn’t about bad behavior or poor choices – it’s a disease. The culture created a myth that addicts simply choose to continue using drugs, when most people who battle this illness want to lead healthy, productive lives. People suffering from addiction need help overcoming both physical and mental symptoms that can feel overwhelmingly powerful.

The majority of people who are dealing with dependency also have other, underlying health conditions. Called comorbidity, victims of illnesses from schizophrenia to rheumatoid arthritis will use drugs in an effort to control their symptoms – be it mental anxiety or extreme joint pain. What the state sees as a criminal act is often a result of people self-medicating for a disease they may not even know they have.

People are thrown in jail or prison, stigmatized, and forced to pay exorbitant penalties – all due to a disease that is, to some degree, often out of their control.


Unlike some states, Georgia still treats drug addiction as a crime rather than a disease, and laws are comparatively severe. As a Schedule I substance – the most addictive classification with the least medical use – simply having heroin in your possession is a felony in the state. Even a first-time offense can mean 2-15 years of prison and additional fines. Most people fighting substance dependency, however, may find it impossible to get clean. Further offenses mean addicts can face up to 30 years in prison.


Jailing and imprisoning offenders isn’t fair to them, but it’s worse than an individual injustice. It has a measurable costly for the state. As a measure of rehabilitation, it’s useless. No one can be rehabilitated from addiction without compassion and medical care, especially from a drug like heroin, which has extremely agonizing withdrawal symptoms once someone has stopped taking it. Prison medical teams become wasted resources as they work to care for people who will be released to the streets and likely use again, often finding themselves on the wrong side of the law – again.

The cycle of drug abuse can’t be solved by treating those with a disease like criminals. In fact, it is exacerbating the problem – addicts and their loved ones are terrified to seek help because of the severity of Georgia’s laws. Georgia does have an Amnesty Law in place that would prevent someone calling for help on behalf of another who is overdosing from being charged with a crime. Such laws can be helpful, but they do little to prove to addicts they can trust a system intent on putting them behind bars.

Some Georgia courts will allow rehabilitation over jail time, and that’s a step in the right direction. As a state and as a nation, however, legislators should consider transforming how courts deal with people battling substance abuse.