September 26, 2016
Making the argument for legalization as the best response to the US heroin problems
This new opinion piece by Bonnie Kristian at The Week, headlined "Legalize heroin," makes a full-throated argument for why eliminating criminal law rather than making it more tough would be the best way to deal with the current heroin epidemic. Here are excerpts:
The U.S. government should legalize heroin. The last five years have seen heroin overdose deaths dramatically spike in the United States, from just over 3,000 in 2010 to more than 10,500 in 2014, the latest year for which the National Institutes of Health provides data. In fact, drug overdose deaths now outpace car crashes in taking American lives, and about half those overdoses are attributable to heroin and other opioids....
Recent history and present practicalities alike make clear that the best way to cut down on heroin abuse is to legalize it — or at the very least, decriminalize it. The crown jewel of evidence for this point is the experience of Portugal, whose culture and form of government are similar enough to our own to make comparison reasonable. In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drugs. All drugs.
A decade later, hard drug abuse had dropped by half. Drug overdose deaths in Portugal are now all but nonexistent: just three for every million people each year. (Were overdose deaths happening in America at a Portuguese rate, we'd see fewer than 1,000 die annually, more than a 90 percent drop from the current numbers on opioid-related deaths, let alone total overdose deaths.) Portuguese use of sketchy "legal" substitutes is way down, too, because there’s no need to mess with dangerous unknowns when you’ll only get a small fine and maybe a rehab referral if you’re caught with the real thing. Heroin addiction — suffered by fully 1 percent of Portugal's population pre-decriminalization — is estimated to have dropped by about half, and most of those who are still addicted are on substitution treatment and in no statistical danger of overdose.
By contrast, here in the States, strict prohibition has utterly failed to prevent drug use rates at world-record levels. Drug war spending is perhaps the only thing to spike faster than heroin addiction, and we have nothing to show for it. In 2016, Rolling Stone notes, "the federal government is spending more than $1,100 per person to combat the habit of America's 27 million illicit-drug users, and 22 million of them use marijuana." With more than $1.5 trillion down the drain, U.S. addiction rates have utterly failed to improve.
If anything, the drug war makes illicit opioid use more dangerous than it otherwise would be. Heroin abuse often begins as an extension of opioid addiction fostered by over-prescription, and once users get their supply from the street instead of the pharmacy, prohibition produces tainted and mislabeled products that make overdose more likely — just like it did with alcohol nearly a century ago.
Criminalizing the heroin supply chain produces a risky and therefore lucrative market for violent criminals, leading to casualties far beyond the toll of drug abuse itself. To argue for legal heroin "does not, at first blush, appear to put one on the side of the angels," explains Harvard's Danielle Allen, but "the war on drugs drives violent crime, which in turn pushes up incarceration and generates other negative social outcomes. You just can't move $100 billion worth of illegal product without a lot of assault and homicide."
Prohibition even makes safe treatment less likely for addicts who know they have a problem and actively want to change their lives. After decriminalization, Portugal saw the rate of people seeking addiction treatment nearly double, because now there is essentially no downside to doing so. With a looming threat of jail or coercive court-mandated rehab stints shaped as much by policy goals than each individual's unique health care needs, the same cannot be said here....
Heroin addicts need relief too — relief from their addiction itself, yes, but also from dangerous products, organized crime, and a government eager to lock them up in a prison environment hardly conducive to improving physical or mental health. Of course, there is an element of choice in opioid abuse that is missing from a cancer diagnosis. Still, the heroin epidemic is a health crisis, and legalization is a viable and practical solution that compassion dictates we must consider.
September 26, 2016 at 08:34 AM | Permalink