We shouldn’t give up on any drug addicts

Published 5:43 am Friday, November 25, 2016

If there is still any doubt that our community (and the country at large) has a problem with drug addiction, the Surgeon General released a troubling report last week that concluded that more people are addicted to drugs in the U.S. than have cancer. This includes all types of cancer.

This news should shock lawmakers. Consider this, too: while the estimated 20.8 million drug abusers include those who abuse alcohol, the fact is, opioid use has now outpaced tobacco use in the United States. So far, both Democrats and Republicans have rightly sought treatment solutions. Recently there have been some moves to ease criminal penalties for people who want help. But I suspect law enforcement will always be part of the equation, as addicts who don’t want help can pose a danger to themselves or others or prove in other ways to be unfit for civil society. And jail isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We reported recently on one area drug abuse awareness advocate who is in recovery because she was arrested.

But what of those people who, after an arrest, get sober and take control of their life? How do we help those people get back on their feet?

Healthcare policy and drug treatment issues are thorny, costly and possibly untenable in our state. However, there is a cheap, easy fix to help users and former users who are trying to improve themselves: A state law prohibiting employers from asking about or basing hiring decisions on misdemeanor convictions. Such a law would obviously help people, but it would also help the state, too.

Consider this: Drug addiction knows no class or economic barriers. Anyone, with any amount of education, could potentially develop a drug addiction. However, if a drug-related conviction keeps someone who is otherwise well-qualified from a professional or skilled job, then the workforce (and the economy) is needlessly hobbled. It is true that a business could simply choose to ignore a conviction but blanket workplace policies, insurance requirements or other considerations could trump a business’ best interest. In addition, by denying people who have been convicted of a misdemeanor employment, we are further penalizing them without proof of wrongdoing or risk.

It is true that drug convictions could be expunged, but that process isn’t available to everyone and generally involves legal help, which can be expensive and certainly time consuming. Critics might also point out that a criminal record might be indicative of a problematic employee, but that assumes there are no other warning signs. Presumably anyone who is at present a danger to himself or others would also have a poor work history and thin recommendations. Anyway, as Louisiana is a right-to-work state, a truly problematic employee could be fired without too much trouble.

I get that businesses want to hire only the best candidates. Turnover is expensive for companies and nobody wants an employee who is not reliable or who might steal from a company or harm others, but a drug arrest is no predictor of these things. Chances are, you’ve already hired (or you already work with) an addict or a former addict of some sort. According to the Surgeon General’s report, based on 2015 data, over 27 million Americans use illicit drugs and 66 million Americans reported binge drinking in the last month. That’s a quarter of the adult and adolescent population.

Yes, addicts who seek recovery need help. But that’s not the end of struggle. There’s also a need for second chances, and it’s time our state set into stone a guarantee of that, at least.

Jesse Wright is the managing editor of The Daily News. You can email him at jesse.wright@bogalusadailynews.com or call him at 985-732-2565, ext. 301.