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November 20, 2019

"The Latest Failure in the War on Drugs"

The title of this post is the title of this new New York Times commentary authored by Brandon D.L. Marshall and Abdullah Shihipar.  Here are excerpts:

[D]espite the recognition of drug use as a public health issue, some states have also introduced “drug-induced homicide” laws that put the responsibility of an overdose at the feet of the drug suppliers. In Rhode Island, for example, under “Kristen’s Law” a person who supplies drugs to someone who overdoses can be punished with a life sentence.

These laws have been enacted in at least 25 states, while a few more are considering adopting them. They represent a return to the outdated “war on drugs” approach, which decades of research has shown to be unsuccessful. It instead increases risks for those who use drugs, particularly minority populations and people of color....

People who supply drugs are often friends or family members of those who overdose and often use drugs themselves. In a national survey, more than two in five people who reported having sold drugs also said they meet the criteria for a substance use disorder.  Another analysis of drug-induced homicide news stories, conducted by the Health in Justice Action Lab at Northeastern University, found that 50 percent of people who were charged under drug-induced homicide laws were either friends, caretakers, partners or family members.  Drug transactions are not as simple as buyer and seller....

Proponents say that because these laws have good Samaritan provisions — which protect from criminal consequence those who seek emergency medical assistance at the scene of a suspected drug overdose — they will not discourage people from calling 911 to report an overdose.  However, while studies have shown that knowledge of good Samaritan protections is associated with a willingness to call 911 in the event of an overdose, people are still afraid to call because of fear they will be charged....

What’s more, putting drug users in jail will only worsen the overdose crisis.  People who have recently been released from prison are at much greater risk of overdosing than the public — up to 40 times greater in some cases.  Most jails and prisons across the country do not have medications to treat opioid addiction, which means that when people are released they are especially vulnerable to fatal overdoses.

The war on drugs has hit communities of color the hardest, with Black and Latinx people much more likely to be arrested for simple possession and to receive harsher sentences than whites, despite rates of drug use being similar across all communities.  Even with promises from the authorities to pursue a public health approach, racial disparities in drug-related arrests persist.  A study conducted in Washington State found that among people who had received treatment for substance abuse disorder, black clients were more likely to have been arrested on substance-related charges compared to white clients.  The rate of Fentanyl-related overdose deaths has risen most sharply for black and Latinx people, so we can only expect that drug-induced homicide legislation will disproportionately and negatively affect them.

There has been progress: The Massachusetts Supreme Court recently struck down a drug-induced homicide conviction.  The court argued that the prosecution did not provide sufficient evidence that Jesse Carrillo knew that the heroin he gave to a fellow student, Eric Sinacori, would cause a deadly overdose.  Similar arguments can be made for other cases.  Fentanyl has so contaminated the drug supply that it is hard to determine how much control individual sellers have on quality and content.  Promoting the use of tools like fentanyl test strips, which can allow people to check their drugs before selling or using drugs, should be promoted.  Indeed, when we recently collaborated with other researchers on a study of Rhode Islanders at risk of fentanyl overdose, we found that those with a history of drug dealing were among the most likely to use fentanyl test strips.

Punitive measures threaten the progress we have made on the overdose crisis.  They push people into the shadows, increase overdose risk and contribute to racial disparities.  If the authorities are serious about treating drug use as a public health issue, then they have to let go of this longstanding fixation on punishment.

November 20, 2019 at 06:33 PM | Permalink

Comments

I really am sick of hearing the phrase . "It instead increases risks for those who use drugs, particularly minority populations and people of color...."

No. It increases the risk of everyone who uses drugs.

I'm in favor of total legalization, but not because of racist language like the above--and that phrase is a racist statement.

I am in favor of total legalization because it is a people issue, not a people of color issue.

The writers of this story should be fired and banned from reporting for life.

Posted by: restlelss94110 | Nov 21, 2019 5:57:19 PM

restless, later in the piece the the authors discuss that "Black and Latinx people much more likely to be arrested for simple possession and to receive harsher sentences than whites." So, the argument goes, if/when jurisdictions ramp up punitive enforcement of drug laws, there is reason to fear that everyone will be impacted, but "particularly minority populations and people of color." I struggle to see what is "racist" about saying historical disparities in drug enforcement suggest that greater enforcement is likely to have a disparate impact.

Posted by: Doug B. | Nov 21, 2019 8:41:41 PM

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