Column: Want to fix a heroin epidemic? Treat addiction, don’t criminalize it

Criminalizing addiction only makes it harder to solve its underlying problems. As the opioid epidemic persists, lawmakers need to see the softer side of treating addiction.

Bryce Kolk is a freshman journalism major at MU. He is an opinion columnist who writes about politics for The Maneater.

Addiction is an incredibly complicated illness. Treating it requires support and advice from medical professionals. It can take years of therapy and kid-glove treatment before an addiction is remedied.

So, when lawmakers consistently criminalize addiction, it’s hard to tell whose side they’re on.

On Feb. 25, the Missouri House of Representatives passed HB 239 and would make possession of fentanyl a felony offense. The bill is currently in the State Senate.

Fentanyl is dangerous. Don’t get the wrong message here. It’s an extremely potent opioid that can put your life in danger.

Addiction, however, is a problem best left to medical professionals, not law enforcement officers.

Opium has been criminalized in the U.S. for over 100 years, but there exists an epidemic of opioid abuse across the country.

In 2017, over 70,000 Americans died of drug overdose — a record high since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started recording in 1999. That number has nearly doubled since 2007, when about 36,000 Americans died after overdosing.

It should be evident by now. Criminalizing heroin and other opioids is not going to solve the problem. We need to rethink how we handle addiction in America.

When we label opioid users as outcasts and treat their illness as a felony, we make it harder for them to get the help they need. Destigmatizing addiction is critical in treating it.

Safe injection facilities could be a good first step in treating the opioid epidemic. These facilities offer a safe environment to use while being supervised by medical professionals. Safe injection facilities are used in Canada, Australia and throughout Europe.

Naturally, safe injection facilities are controversial, as they’re seen as enabling drug use. With addiction being a national epidemic, however, we need to understand that this problem isn’t going to go away without treatment. Safe injection facilities don’t enable drug use, as they don’t provide any narcotics or even do the procedures themselves. Their purpose is to make using safer and overdosing less likely.

In the first two years after Vancouver opened a safe injection facility, overdose deaths fell 35% in the immediate area, according to a study published in The Lancet. Overdose deaths in the city as a whole only decreased by 9.3%.

Beyond the benefits of treatment, they also can prevent diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C that can be transmitted from shared needles.

While safe injection facilities can help mitigate the worst aspects of the opioid epidemic, they’re not a total solution. For that, we can look to Portugal.

In the 1990s, Portugal was in the midst of a heroin epidemic not unlike our own. The government acted much as ours is now — by heavily criminalizing drug use. As addicts filled jails and prisons, the underlying problem persisted.

The government decriminalized all drug use in 2001. Rather than send users to prison, anyone with less than a 10-day supply of any drug is sent to a local commision. There, they get advice from a doctor, social worker and lawyer.

The effects of the policy are stunning.

The drug-induced death rate in Portugal fell to less than one fifth the EU average in 2015, according to a 2015 EU report on drug use. Since 2006, HIV diagnoses attributed to injecting have fallen from 493 to 30 in 2016, according to another EU report.

We are in the grips of the worst drug epidemic in U.S. history, and it’s only getting worse. It’s an institutional problem that needs an institutional solution. Criminalizing addiction only exacerbates the problem.

We can fix this, we just have to make a change soon.

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