Demystifying Addiction Myths

Myth 1: A felony penalty is necessary to prevent initial substance use and deter future substance use.

  • 85 percent of formerly incarcerated people with a history of substance abuse return to drug use within 1 year of release, and 95 percent return to drug use within 3 years.1
  • Tobacco use has been decreasing steadily for over 50 years, not because of harsh legal penalties or criminalizing tobacco use but through education and making smoking cigarettes less socially acceptable.2
  • Relapse rates for substance use disorders are similar to those for people with diabetes, hypertension, or asthma. Drug addiction should be approached like any other chronic illness.3
  • Rewards for positive behavior are more effective than punishments for negative behavior in creating long-term change.4

Myth 2: People with addictions are too dangerous to remain in the community.

  • Those with a criminal history and a history of substance abuse achieve the best outcomes when they receive services in the community. This approach is also effective from a public safety standpoint.5
  • The criminal justice system does not need to invest a large amount of funds to imprison a low-risk individual in a setting suited for high-risk people.6
  • Incarceration does not reduce addiction nor improve public safety, because people are released into the community without supervision or services, and they face monumental barriers to employment and housing.7
  • For each dollar invested in addiction treatment programs, there is a return of at least $4 to $7 through diminished rates of crime and criminal justice costs.8

Myth 3: Treatment provided to individuals during incarceration is effective.

  • Drugs exist in prisons and jails just as they do on the outside and the number of inmates testing positive for drugs continues to rise.9
  • Without follow up treatment in the community post-release, relapse rates are indistinguishable between those who attended drug abuse treatment programs while incarcerated and those who received no treatment.10
  • The elements of successful programs are treatment in the community, opportunity to avoid a criminal record or incarceration, close supervision, certain and immediate consequences.11
  • Increased prison and jail drug activity is also related to heightened time spent incarcerated.12

Myth 4: Treatment is too costly to be implemented effectively in the community.

  • Studies indicate putting people who use drugs in treatment is actually more cost-effective than locking them up in jail.13
  • Texas spends more than $63 million annually to incarcerate people for possessing drugs in amounts less than a sugar packet.14
  • Treatment instead of state jail incarceration lowers recidivism and the demand for drugs, and increases public safety and taxpayer savings.15
  • The average cost for one year of treatment for opioid addiction is $4,700 per person, while one year of imprisonment costs approximately $24,000.16


1 Martin, Butzin, Saum, and Inciardi, (1999). Three-year outcomes of therapeutic community treatment for drug-involved offenders in Delaware. The Prison Journal, 79, 294-320.

2 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Trends in Current Cigarette Smoking Among High School Students and Adults, United States, 1965–2014, March 30, 2016,

3 McLellan, Lewis, O’Brien, and Kleber, “Drug dependence, a chronic medical illness: implications for treatment, insurance, and outcomes evaluation.” JAMA 284(13):1689-1695, 2000.

4 National Institute on Drug Abuse, How can rewards and sanctions be used effectively with drug-involved offenders in treatment?

5 Douglas Marlowe, "Integrating Substance Abuse Treatment and Criminal Justice Supervision," Science & Practice Perspectives 2, no. 1 (2003): 4-14. doi:10.1151/spp03214.

6 Chandler, Fletcher, and Volkow, "Treating Drug Abuse and Addiction in the Criminal Justice System," JAMA 301, no. 2 (2009): 183. doi:10.1001/jama.2008.976.

7 Legislative Budget Board, Statewide Criminal and Juvenile Justice Recidivism and Revocation Rates, February, 2017, 2,

8 National Institute on Drug Abuse, Is drug addiction treatment worth its cost?

9 Alan Johnson, "Drug use in Ohio’s prisons spiked in ’12," The Columbus Dispatch, January 7, 2013,

10 Douglas Marlowe, "Integrating Substance Abuse Treatment and Criminal Justice Supervision," Science & Practice Perspectives 2, no. 1 (2003): 4-14. doi:10.1151/spp03214.

11 Ibid.

12 W. Gillespie, "A Multilevel Model of Drug Abuse Inside Prison," The Prison Journal 85, no. 2 (2005): 223-46. doi:10.1177/0032885505277002.

13 "More Sensible Sentencing for Drug Offenders," Elements Behavioral Health, December 16, 2016,

14 Legislative Budget Board, Criminal and Juvenile Justice Uniform Cost Report: Fiscal Years 2013 and 2014, February 2017, 4, 6, Juvenile_Justice_Uniform_Cost_Report.pdf.

15 RTI International, Study: Replacing Prison Terms with Drug Abuse Treatment Could Save Billions in Criminal Justice Costs, January 8, 2013,

16 "Is drug addiction treatment worth its cost?" National Institute on Drug Abuse,