We should combat opioid crisis with support, not punitive measures

Jordan Reid is the founding editor of Ramshackle Glam.
Liberal Opinion

Jordan Reid

Author; Founding Editor, Ramshackle Glam
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Opioid addiction has led to an epidemic of overdose-related deaths in the United States. Drug overdose deaths now surpass those from car crashes and guns, according to the CDC. Companies like Purdue Pharma have had to pay billions of dollars in fines for their role in sparking the opioid epidemic in America. But what about the victims caught in the grips of drug addiction? Straight Arrow News contributor Jordan Reid says the U.S. should combat the opioid crisis with support and preventative tactics, not punitive measures.

In the 1960s, the U.S. government, acknowledging the inherent risks of travel by car, began requiring that cars include seatbelts. And today, deaths per miles traveled are about one-fifth of what they were in 1965. Just imagine, for a moment, if we approached the opioid crisis with the same levelheaded sensibility – the same eye towards what we call “harm reduction.” And yet as the body count for the opioid crisis rises year after year, the U.S. government has failed to implement any comprehensive response, even demonstrating open hostility to strategies for harm reduction that have proven strikingly effective. 

Trump, for example, views the issue as a supply-and-demand problem: If you make it harder to get drugs, and give the death penalty to dealers, it’ll go away. Except this prohibition-style approach doesn’t work. People want drugs, they will get drugs. What does work? Decriminalizing lesser drug offenses, and replacing arrests with addiction treatment and social services. Portugal, once known as the heroin capital of the world, did this in 2001. Overdose deaths in that country subsequently fell by 85%.

In Seattle, which has stopped jailing people found with small amounts of drugs, users are more likely to have a job and a home and less likely to be rearrested. Academic research has disproven the claim that harm reduction tactics – including access to Safe Consumption Spaces, needle exchange programs and free drug testing strips and Naloxone (also known by its brand name, Narcan) – will result in increased drug use, but have definitively shown that they are effective at combating overdose deaths. 

As an example, 2018 study of national harm reduction policies found that opioid deaths dropped by 14% in states that made Naloxone easier to acquire. Americans tend to see drug use through the prism of criminality rather than public health. Embracing harm reduction efforts requires seeing drug use as a part of life. But like driving, drug use is an activity that incurs risk, and yet is something that happens every day. 

People who suffer from addiction…they’re still people. And the way to help them is through support, compassion and outreach – not through punitive measures that only make them less likely to ask for the help that they need. 

When we visit an amusement park, we anticipate the excitement that will come from a death-defying drop out of the air, or an upside-down loop on a roller coaster, never thinking about the fact that we’re far more likely to be hurt or even killed on the way to the park than we are once we’re inside its walls. 

We all know that riding in a car is dangerous. But we do it anyway. We use seatbelts to lessen the likelihood of negative consequences resulting from our decision to participate in a risky behavior.

In the 1960s, the US government, acknowledging the inherent risks of travel by car, began requiring that cars include seatbelts. And today, deaths per miles traveled are about one-fifth of what they were in 1965. 

Just imagine, for a moment, if we approached the opioid crisis with the same levelheaded sensibility – the same eye towards what we call “harm reduction.” 

And yet as the body count for the opioid crisis rises year after year, the US government has failed to implement any comprehensive response, even demonstrating open hostility to strategies for harm reduction that have proven strikingly effective. 

Trump, for example, views the issue as a supply-and-demand problem: If you make it harder to get drugs, and give the death penalty to dealers, it’ll go away. Except this prohibition-style approach doesn’t work. People want drugs, they will get drugs. 

What does work? Decriminalizing lesser drug offenses, and replacing arrests with addiction treatment and social services. Portugal, once known as the heroin capital of the world, did this in 2001. Overdose deaths in that country subsequently fell by 85%.

In Seattle, which has stopped jailing people found with small amounts of drugs, users are more likely to have a job and a home, and less likely to be rearrested. 

Academic research has disproven the claim that harm reduction tactics – including access to Safe Consumption Spaces, needle exchange programs, and free drug testing strips and Naloxone (also known by its brand name, Narcan) – will result in increased drug use, but have definitively shown that they are effective at combating overdose deaths. 

As an example,  2018 study of national harm reduction policies found that opioid deaths dropped by 14% in states that made Naloxone (also known by its brand name, Narcan) easier to acquire.

Americans tend to see drug use through the prism of criminality rather than public health. Embracing harm reduction efforts requires seeing drug use as a part of life. But like driving, drug use is an activity that incurs risk, and yet is something that happens every day. 

People who suffer from addiction…they’re still people. And the way to help them is through support, compassion, and outreach – not through punitive measures that only make them less likely to ask for the help that they need. 

Short story: If someone isn’t breathing, they’re not capable of seeking – or participating in – their recovery. And that is a choice that should be left to them.


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