Cameron Douglas and the Failed Drug War

By Juliet Elisabeth 08/01/16

Traditional recovery services often teach patients that relapse is part of their recovery—however, a person on parole who relapses can go back to prison.

Cameron and Michael Douglas
Cameron Douglas and his father, actor Michael Douglas, 2009.

Earlier today it was reported by People Magazine that Cameron Douglas, son of actor Michael Douglas, has been released from prison and is residing in a halfway house in Brooklyn as a condition of his parole. In 2009, Cameron was arrested for selling methamphetamine and possession of heroin and the following year sentenced to five years in prison; an additional 4.5 years was tacked on to his sentence after he was caught bringing drugs into prison for “personal use.” As previously reported in The Fix, Cameron lost his appeal over the additional “unusually long” sentence and his release date was set for 2018.

Three years ago, Cameron sent a letter to the Huffington Post from behind bars: “Our prisons are filled with non-violent drug offenders who are losing much of what is relevant in life. This outdated system pays little, if any, concern to the disease of addiction, and instead punishes it more harshly than many violent crimes. And even more exasperating is that many of the people responsible for this tragedy disregard documented medical research and the reality of our country’s unsustainable prison overpopulation.”

The story of Cameron Douglas reflects a harsh punitive system for substance abusers starting with the admittedly fraudulent War on Drugs orchestrated by the Nixon administration against left-wing and African American communities. Today, the far-reaching effects of imprisoning drug users have crossed every socio-economic background and even celebrities are not immune.

The War on Drugs conflicts with treatment goals because it punishes people who are then told they are locked up because they have a “disease.” In another excerpt from Cameron’s letter, he even writes:  “… I seem to be trapped in a vicious cycle of relapse and repeat, as most addicts are. Unfortunately, whereas the effective remedy for relapse should be treatment, the penal system’s 'answer' is to lock the door and throw away the key.”

Traditional recovery services often teach patients that relapse is part of their recovery; however, a person on parole who relapses can go back to prison. Abstinence is an outcome that usually arises after a time period of trial and error. A failure to abstain results in a phenomena called the Abstinence Violation Effect, or intense shame and guilt after a relapse, which can lead to more relapses. The pressure to not use and not return to jail can be a double-edged sword for those on parole or probation. It leaves virtually no room for a person in recovery to deviate from perfect abstinence, which goes against treatment principles. 

Dr. Andrew Tatarsky, founder of Integrative Harm Reduction Psychotherapy (IHRP), explained in The Fix last year:

The first principle of IHRP is listening—listen to the patients’ experience, listen to what they have to say, get out of your own head. When you find your own voice it’s inherently empowering. And when a therapist says “this is what you have to do,” that is inherently disempowering. In IHRP, we think disempowering authoritarian help, as I was saying before, requires people to submit or provokes a sense of rebelling. IHRP is not authoritarian. We set up a relationship that’s going to support people to find their own truth. And this collaborative part is what is very empowering to people. Together, we try to figure out a path that’s going to really serve you. IHRP is diametrically opposite to that disempowering system out there. And we think that’s how it works.  

New York City is home to several harm reduction services: Dr. Tatarsky’s The Center for Optimal Living, the advocacy group Harm Reduction Coalition, and Kenneth Anderson’s HAMS (Harm Reduction, Abstinence from alcohol, Moderation and Support) program. Unfortunately, none of these organizations have halfway houses.

Cameron is right about needing to change a prison system which incarcerates people with addiction for multiple years instead of providing necessary treatment. Especially in a nation where a young college student receives only six months for a rape charge. Cameron is also correct that addiction is a health issue. Diseases don’t give people felonies.

Furthermore, punishing inmates for attempting, successfully or not, to smuggle in drugs should raise questions about the prison's security. Not only did the judge add almost five more years to Cameron’s original five years for obtaining drugs in prison, other inmates broke his leg in retaliation for snitching on other inmates in exchange for a reduced sentence. The prison could not prevent violence or smuggled drugs.  

Why do we place non-violent drug offenders into prisons alongside sex offenders and violent offenders? Hopefully the less restrictive environment of a halfway house will facilitate the changes Cameron needs to not return to prison. The problem with halfway houses in New York, however, is the state’s Department of Correction and Community Supervision (DOCCS) does not operate or certify the residence of the parolee; instead, outside contracts are negotiated with the owners of the houses. After seven years in prison, let’s hope Cameron Douglas can now recover from imprisonment and live an addiction-free life.

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Juliet Elisabeth is a freelance writer and independent contractor as a research analyst focused on the healthcare field; also an artist and mother of two. Activist for choice in recovery treatment. Her blog is AarmedWithFacts.