July 4, 2021 – “The fact that we have criminalized some of these things and used punishment as a form of dealing with it goes along with the stigmatized idea that substance use disorders and addiction are a moral choice,” Chandler said. “What we actually know from many years of science is that substance use disorders are involved in a fundamental change within the brain, and within neural circuitry.”

Some experts, like Dr. Kevin Fiscella, a professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center, predict that the number of drug and alcohol-related deaths could be higher because these fatalities may have been recorded as being related to other underlying conditions.

Chandler and Fiscella say that improving systems of treatment and rehabilitation can prevent these deaths, reduce recidivism and end the stigma against people who experience substance abuse. Willy Sorila, a 28-year-old formerly incarcerated man and an operations manager at the Aspen Ridge Recovery Center in Colorado, said he could have died while in jail for drug distribution due to a forced withdrawal from benzodiazepine, a psychoactive drug.

Sorila, who is still in recovery, recalls having seizures while experiencing withdrawal and receiving no formal treatment for his substance abuse while incarcerated. After leaving jail after a week, he said he later fell into opioid abuse.