Heroin Addiction In United States and its effects on Criminal Justice System


This paper aims to examine the drug abuse problem in the United States and its effects on the criminal justice system with a particular focus on heroin addiction. This paper will provide a scope of the heroin abuse problem, an illustration of the effects of heroin addiction on the individual and broader social systems and its correlation to and impact on the criminal justice system. An examination of the deleterious effects of current drug control policy, their motivation and adverse consequences for the American society will be provided as well as an exploration of an alternative strategy that can make existing systems more effective.

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Problem statement

Drug and substance abuse has been on the rise in the United States, in spite of numerous, often radical initiatives by law enforcement to counter drug trafficking, distribution, and drug-related crime. According to the annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 494, 000 Americans were current users of heroin which is slightly higher than percentages observed in a similar survey conducted in 2015. The incidence of heroin use disorders displayed little improvement from previous years. An estimated 652,000 Americans had a heroin disorder while an average of 220 people tried heroin for the first time every day.

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According to Jiang et al. (2017), heroin addiction and its associated factors result in a total cost of $51.7 billion for American society. The presence of an overwhelming number of heroin addicts and users in the United States is arguably the main contributor to the presence of large networks of well-financed drug trafficking organizations in Latin American nations (Bagley, 2012). The estimated annual revenue for the drug industry in the United States is as high as $60 billion. Thus, the United States has been and remains the most significant single market for illicit drugs in the world.

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Effects of heroin addiction on social systems

The effects of drug usage and consumption on social systems can are traced back to the role of heroin abuse and addiction in the disintegration of the family unit and with it, the supervisory role of the parent upon the child. Drug usage in America can be traced back as early as the 19th century. Illicit drug use probably presents a vicious cycle through generations of drug users and their children. Low economic status can lead to increased drug usage, and drug abuse is responsible for reduced economic productivity among users. It is, therefore, accurate to posit that most users might come from low socio-economic backgrounds. In the absence of financial resources, crime and prostitution might present themselves as lucrative ventures to sustain the addiction. These ventures would bring with them high possibilities of arrest or pregnancy.

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Children born to parents battling drug addiction often lack parental support and moral direction and are thus increasingly vulnerable to peer pressure. In the absence of parental authority and proper health education, they are likely to venture into drug usage. Drug usage and/or addiction at a young age results in impaired short term memory, tracking ability, emotional and social development, reduced cognitive efficiency and decision making abilities and constant preoccupation with acquiring the drug (Newcomb & Locke, 2005). The interaction of these effects often leads to poor academic performance.

To offset the low self-esteem caused by poor academic performance, consumption of more drugs will be necessary, which may lead to absenteeism and eventual dropping out.  As an adult, the presence of a highly competitive labor market makes it impossible to find meaningful employment. The frustration caused by being unemployed necessitates the consumption of more drugs. Lack of adequate finances to purchase the drugs results in ventures into prostitution/crime. Thus, a vicious cycle that is likely to affect generations will have been completed.

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Effects on the individual

The risk of mortality heroine drug consumption is high. Most heroin users acquire a lifetime preoccupation with acquiring the drug which culminates only in death. Heroin addiction brings about an increased risk for acquiring HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis B and C particularly in Injection Drug Users (IDUs) and users who engage in risky behavior after drug use (Coyne & Hall, 2017). Addiction brings about adverse health impacts including insomnia, constipation, lung disease, depression, and anti-social disorders, sexual dysfunction, damage to the mucosal surface due to repeated snorting and scarred and collapsed veins from repeated injections (Newcomb & Locke, 2005). These complications require comprehensive treatments to meet all the patients’ needs which places an incredible financial and emotional burden on friends and relatives (Jiang et al. 2017)

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Effects of heroin abuse on the criminal justice system

Drug and substance abuse affects the criminal justice system through its succinct relation to crime. Drug users often get arrested for the use and possession of controlled substances. Drugs may also later the user’s behavior significantly as to trigger or necessitate involvement in crime Lack of financial resources to support their addiction may necessitate criminal acts such as robbery, burglary, and theft. Individuals involved in the illicit drug trade often engage in violent behavior during turf wars, and disagreements over payment delays. A significant proportion of offenders within the criminal justice system are battling drug and substance abuse disorders. Drug treatment programs have become a typical and essential feature of the American prison system.


The national drug policy has taken particular precedence in the criminal justice system since the ‘war on drugs’ was declared in the 1970s by the Reagan administration. Central in its agenda was to initiate preventive measures to the drug trade. These included alcohol and drug prohibition, reducing initiation into drug use and overall drug abuse (Coyne & Hall, 2017). In the late 20th century and early 21st century, drug law enforcement activities had risen considerably. The proportion of arrests for drug-related offenses rising from one in fourteen to one in eight of all arrests. Current national drug initiatives aim at reducing the adverse consequences of drug use through prohibitive strategies.

Less formal responses have necessitated an overemphasis on drug law enforcement over prevention and treatment (Caulkins et al., 2005). Voters and politicians perceive the drug problem as a moral failing deserving of punishment rather than a health problem deserving treatment despite significant research showing the correlation between addiction and an array of biological, socio-economical and psychological factors (Caulkins et al., 2005). Informal political discourse often criticizes drug users and offenders, assigns blame to foreigners, recommends interdiction of drug smugglers and fails to consider alternative strategies that may reduce the burden of addiction on the American population (Caulkins et al., 2005).

Effectiveness of drug control policies

The results of these initiatives have been mixed. While cocaine consumption has been on the decline, heroin consumption may be on the rise (Caulkins et al., 2005). Although no drug is yet to enjoy the kind of lucrative market shares enjoyed by cocaine, heroin and marijuana, several drugs have been introduced into the market over the years that threaten such dominance (Caulkins et al., 2005).

While there is a need for preventive measures to the illicit drug problem, prohibitive rules, and drug law enforcement have created an array of challenges for the criminal justice system and the society at large. Increased law enforcement attention to low-level drug offenders has diverted federal and state resources from other criminal offenders and led to a dramatic increase in index crimes (Coyne & Hall, 2017).  The passage of legislation such as the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 have created harsher sentencing guidelines for drug offenses. Today, nearly half of all inmates in federal prisons were arrested and incarcerated on drug-related charges. Furthermore, the abolition of parole, expansion of minimum sentencing makes sure that drug offenders spend more extended periods in prison than ever before (Coyne & Hall, 2017).

While the severity of the punitive movement has increased, the severity of charges have not reduced (Coyne & Hall, 2017). Thus, elaborate sentencing guidelines and vigilant efforts towards arrests and incarcerations are wasted on street dealers, couriers, and low-level assistants while major drug king-pins remain undeterred (Coyne & Hall, 2017).  Three-quarters of all drug offenders in state prisons are non-violent offenders. 60% of all crack-cocaine offenders in federal prisons were only involved in low-level drug activity. In fact, if justices were allowed more discretion in drug sentencing 125,000 inmates in state prisons would qualify for non-custodial correction (Coyne & Hall, 2017).

Drug control initiatives have failed to make drugs unattractive by increasing the price of any established drugs through a reduction in drug supply to the country (Coyne & Hall, 2017).  While drug enforcement agencies boast of significant increases in the number of drugs impounded each year, drug smugglers have discovered alternative ways to bring more drugs into the country and kept supply and demand factors constant.

The ineffectiveness of national drug policy is further demonstrated in its failure to recognize the utility of treatment over preventive and prohibitive measures. A distinct correlation has been drawn between offending criminal behavior and drug use (Caulkins et al., 2005).  In 2004, more than half of inmates in state prisons had engaged in drug and substance abuse in the month preceding their arrest. Another significant proportion had committed crimes to subsidize an active addiction (Coyne & Hall, 2017).

Federal and state governments spend 56% of the drug control budget on drug law enforcement, including prison expansion, 29% on treatment, and 18% on prevention (Caulkins et al, 2005). This resource imbalance means that inmates battling drug disorders often receive little to no treatment during incarceration. Reentering society with an active addiction, coupled with the difficulties encountered by drug offenders as they try to transition back to the community, may have contributed to the increased rates of recidivism observed among drug offenders (Mauer & King, 2007).

Adverse consequences

Close to three-quarters of the prison population in the United States is composed of members of minority groups. African Americans are the most severely affected demographic, taking up 37% of all arrests for drug offenses and 56% of prison inmates convicted on drug charges despite having a minimal 13% share of the total American population. The rate of imprisonment for African Americans is over seven times that of Caucasian Americans. Drug usage in the United States (69.2% whites, 12.8% African American, and 14.4% Hispanic) generally reflects racial proportions (Mauer & King, 2007). Thus, racial disparities in arresting and sentencing can only be explained by an overlap of policy, practices, and decisions such as the concentration of drug law enforcement on inner-city areas where the majority of these communities reside, robust racially disparate drug law enforcement and harsher sentencing. (Mauer & King, 2007). The interaction of these factors results in members of minority communities being arrested and imprisoned for ridiculous periods even when an examination prevailing circumstances may have resulted in less severe sentencing.

Furthermore, stricter prohibitive laws on heroin use have generated restrictions on clean needles and syringes (Coyne & Hall, 2017). In many states, it is illegal to buy and sell needles or syringes without a prescription. Policymakers desired to make it difficult for users to inject heroin. However, they have only succeeded in encouraging the reuse and sharing of needles among users and increased transmission of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis. Additionally, restrictive laws have increased the amount of tainted, highly potent drugs circulating in the black market, and exacerbated the frequency of drug-related illness and overdoses (Coyne & Hall, 2017).

Alternative responses

Current policy considerations should aim at reducing consumption. Drug enforcement may present an often elusive promise of removing drugs from the streets. However, the fractioned and local nature of drug markets makes it impossible for any enforcement strategy to do so. Arrested sellers can easily be replaced, and local operations cannot simply be crippled by interdicting king-pins.

An evaluation of the drug court programming found that significant cost reductions could be achieved when all inmates with a history of drug abuse received drug abuse and treatment. It costs much less to treat a heavy user than to incarcerate him/her or a seller (Caulkins et al., 2005). According to the RAND analysis of the drug abuse problem, expanding treatment services for drug-related disorders is likely to reduce crime 15 times more that mandatory sentencing. Additionally, spending $1 million on treatment would minimize drug consumption by as much as 100kg while spending the same amount on incarceration only reduces consumption by 13kg (Caulkins et al., 2005). Moreover, drug treatment initiatives may attack the drug supply chain directly by lowering demand. While the effects of treatment and prevention may be gradual, and necessitate long term investments in individual users (Caulkins et al., 2005), they present long term solutions that should reduce the level of drug usage in the population by focusing on consumption rather than enforcement.


The proportion active heroin abusers is growing steadily within the American population. Although drug law enforcement actively seizes significant amounts of heroin entering the United States, increased supply quantities render these short term victories redundant. Meanwhile, federal policymakers continue to push for harsher penalties that will put members of minority communities in prison and keep them there. Apportioning blame and incarcerating users and low-level dealers are unlikely to solve the addiction problem. There should be more support for policies that increase funding for treatment and prevention to reduce demand. When Americans are not actively using heroin and other illicit drugs, robust drug enforcement will have better chances of attacking and closing supply channels.

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