This guest post is published as part of our Scholar-Activist series related to the American Sociological Association conference from August 11 – 14 in Philadelphia. #ASA18 #ScholarActivist

By Miriam Boeri, author of Hurt: Chronicles of the Drug War Generation

Social recovery can be implemented as a complement to treatment and an alternative to incarceration. This requires a paradigm shift in how we think about and discuss treatment.”

Since the “war on drugs” was declared, the trend in the US to address drug use has leaned toward the punitive response, which resulted in the mass incarceration of drug users of historical proportions. Public awareness of the human and economic costs of continuing to fund a prison industrial complex has put more emphasis back on treatment. The opioid epidemic prompted more emphasis on medication assisted treatment (MAT), such as providing legal methadone and burprenorphine. But even the recent attention focused on stemming the increases in overdose death rates are not sufficient. Overdose statistics provide evidence that current strategies are not adequate for the problem. Clearly something is missing.

Based on research conducted for my book, Hurt: Chronicles of the Drug War Generation, I suggest that a missing strategy is social recovery. A social recovery approach focuses on building social capital by facilitating the process of acquiring the skills, resources, and networks that enhance people’s ability to live in society without resorting to problematic substance use. Social recovery places less emphasis on individual traits and behaviors and more on the social and relational processes of recovery. Calling attention to the importance of social ties and social bonds to society, social recovery works in the realm of peers, family context, and community resources.

Social capital refers to connections among people that provide them the resources needed to live happy, healthy and fulfilled lives. As Robert Putnam described in his groundbreaking book, Bowling Alone, when we become disconnected from family and friends and feel isolated from society our stock of social capital is depleted. Building positive social capital is a way to promote healthy citizens and a thriving community. The problem for many drug users is how to connect. We form new relationships by engaging in new social networks. As people become more dependent on illegal drugs, or on legal opioids and MATs, they often become less integrated in conventional society. Many are alienated when they stop drug use after leaving prison or treatment, and with few avenues to increase their social capital, they return to drug-using networks.

Many people leaving treatment are advised to join a recovery group. One problem with recovery networks is that they often become insular and present a barrier to bridging social capital. A study focused on network dynamics of recovery groups found they lacked access to new positive social networks in the community. Their findings show the need for more effort to be placed on linking treatment participants to mainstream networks centered on meaningful activities outside the recovery environment.

Social recovery can be implemented as a complement to treatment and an alternative to incarceration. This requires a paradigm shift in how we think about and discuss treatment. There is no single solution—no magic bullet—that will solve this opioid epidemic or the next drug problem. But focusing on the social aspects of drug use and adding strategies that increase the social capital of recovering users can help reduce relapse and potentially prevent problematic drug use.