Treatment: The Only Hope for Cameron Douglas

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

On Monday, actor Michael Douglas appeared on The Today Show for the first time since his 31-year-old son Cameron was sentenced to five years for heroin possession and conspiring to sell crystal meth.

Some commentators have claimed that Cameron’s five-year sentence—half the 10-year mandatory minimum—reflected celebrity treatment.  But, celebrity scion or not, the court system grants judges latitude to consider the circumstances. In this case, Cameron’s life-ruling addiction may have influenced Judge Berman’s decision to save him from an unreasonable—and counterproductive—prison term. What he, and others struggling with substance abuse, need is comprehensive drug treatment, not simply a long stint in jail.

Cameron Douglas is a classic and tragic example of early onset drug use. In fact, as his Oscar-winning dad told Matt Lauer, his eight months under federal lockup while awaiting his sentence was his longest period of sobriety since age 13. Although Michael Douglas expressed optimism that this time, his son would kick the habit and “start afresh,” we as treatment professionals know that it’s not so simple. When someone starts using at such a young age, his addiction becomes a disease of the whole person that affects thinking, attitude, and behavior. Without treatment—no matter how long Cameron stays behind bars—his chances of long-term recovery are remote to non-existent.

While it’s unclear where Cameron will serve his time, we can only hope that Judge Berman’s recommendation to the Federal Bureau of Prisons includes appropriate time in treatment—and a parole condition that he receives continuing care. We at Phoenix House have a long history of working with parolees and ensuring that they receive the services they need to remain drug-free. These recovery management services are what will matter most in saving Cameron’s life—and preventing him from landing in jail again for drug-related crimes.

For Cameron’s sake—and the sake of the 23 million Americans who meet criteria for substance abuse—I hope that criminal justice reform brings greater recognition that addiction is a chronic medical condition. Incarcerating drug users without providing them with the help they need drains state and federal budgets and wastes taxpayer dollars. It doesn’t give substance abusers the tools to find their way, nor does it effectively fight crime. We need to get the word out: jail time alone will never work.

David Deitch, Ph.D.
Consultant and former Chief Clinical Officer, Phoenix House
Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry, University of California, San Diego

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