We need to kick our harmful and ineffective addiction to punishment – KevinMD – Marc Krupanski |May 3, 2017
As New Jersey Governor Chris Christie takes the lead in crafting the Trump administration’s response to the opioid crisis, he and his colleagues need to understand that we can’t fix the problem until we kick our long-term addiction to the war on drugs and accept overdoses for what they are: a health issue.
Although the majority of Americans who consume illicit drugs do so without addiction, opioid overdose has become a deadly reality.
Expecting the criminal justice system to solve a health crisis does more harm than good.
A growing number of Americans believe that drug misuse is a health problem. Yet we continue to rely on law enforcement and the criminal justice system to deal with it, despite resounding evidence that punishment does not stop people from misusing drugs.
Treating law enforcement as the primary responder to overdoses encourages punitive responses, like charging overdose survivors and bystanders with drug possession and other offenses.
The widespread adoption of drug courts — praised by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder as a way to “strengthen public health and build stronger, safer communities” — is a similarly flawed solution. While some people have found help through drug courts, many of them rely on judges, not doctors, to make decisions about treatment. Drug courts often require total abstinence as a one-size-fits-all solution, sometimes ordering people off of medications like methadone or buprenorphine that are helping them reduce their reliance on heroin. Drug courts can also push people into the treatment system who aren’t dependent on drugs.
People for whom drug-court-ordered treatments don’t work are then punished and pushed back into the criminal justice system, often with harsher prison sentences than they would have received in the first place.
There’s a better way. It’s called harm reduction.
This approach focuses on reducing the negative effects of drug use rather than on punishing people who use drugs in an often-futile attempt to make them stop
In Vancouver, Canada, police have urged drug users to use the city’s supervised injection facility, Insite, to prevent overdoses. In countries as diverse as Kyrgyzstan, Kenya, and Moldova, police have developed operational guidelines to respect the human rights of people who use drugs and advance public health goals like HIV prevention.
If we are serious about preventing overdoses and reducing the harm associated with substance misuse in the U.S., similar programs should be created here. We need solutions that meet people where they are, treat them as human beings, and provide evidence-based services to help them make necessary changes to lead healthier and safer lives
Above all, we need to kick our harmful and ineffective addiction to punishment — so police, health providers, and people who use drugs can work together to save and transform lives
Author: Marc Krupanski is a program officer, Public Health Program of the Open Society Foundations. This article originally appeared in STAT News.