Drugs and the drug war touch most families. Millions of people have a loved one behind bars on drug charges. Many millions more have struggled with drugs themselves – or have a loved one who has dealt with addiction to illegal or legal drugs. By declaring a "war on drugs" we have declared a war on ourselves. We know that prison is not the answer for people who use drugs. So what can be done?
Howard Josepher and Exponents, the organization he founded 20 years ago have some answers. Howard and Exponents have helped more than 10,000 people with serious drug problems.
Howard knows about substance abuse on a personal level. He struggled with heroin addiction and spent some time behind bars. Over the last two decades, Howard built a dynamic organization made up of staff who have also struggled with addiction, incarceration and HIV. They have helped thousands of others, and their efforts show us another world is possible.
The first thing you need to know is that Exponents’ cutting-edge work is different from the vast majority of treatment programs in at least five fundamental ways.First, they shatter the myth that people have to be coerced into treatment. Exponents has always been voluntary, and has better results in getting people through their program than programs that favor the punitive, coercive treatment models. They dismantle the theory that people need the threat of jail hanging over their head to get them to seek treatment.
The second major difference between Exponents and the majority of treatment programs is that they don’t demand abstinence from people. Almost 99 percent of treatment programs demand people be abstinent in order to attend their programs. If someone wants to give up heroin but still uses marijuana, Exponents views it as a positive step towards recovery and says good job giving up the heroin, you are welcome here. They are about getting people into the door, not setting up barriers.
Thirdly, they come at treatment through love and building people up. They don’t shame people and make them feel like failures if they relapse. They are about building skills, confidence and resiliency. They offer useful classes like meditation, job trainings, mentoring, all with the goals of maintaining better health and mental health choices.
Fourth, they get people involved in activism to change city and state policies. Exponents participants were on the front lines of challenging the draconian NY Rockefeller Drug laws that sent people with low-level drug offenses to prison for 15 years to life. They continue to be involved in advocating harm reduction policies like access to clean syringes and ending the NYC’s racist marijuana arrests. It is powerful for people to fight for their rights and their lives and win victories.
And finally, Exponents staff is made up of folks who have lived the experience. The people running the classes and the organization know what they are talking about from personal experience. The programs that help people reenter society after prison are run by formerly incarcerated people. The treatment programs are led by people who have struggled with addiction.
The results of the Exponents ARRIVE programs speak for themselves. The original ARRIVE study, published in the International Journal of the Addictions, demonstrated significant benefits for those who attended the program versus a control group who did not attend.
Treatment is not a silver bullet. Relapse is common. Not everyone is going to be abstinent of all drugs. Improving one’s life is an ongoing journey. But Exponents is an inspiring model that should be studied and replicated. Love and compassion, not punishment and jails, is how people heal and thrive.
Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org)