June 25, 2019 | 71° F

O'BRIEN: To combat opioid crisis, U.S. should decriminalize heroin

Opinions Column: Policy Over Politics

Alleged “small-government conservative” and United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke to reporters on Tuesday about his views on the state of crime and addiction in America and hinted at some of the actions he, the Justice Department and President Donald J. Trump's administration as a whole will take to combat it. “I do not believe this pop in crime is a one-time aberration,'' Sessions said. "I'm afraid it represents the beginning of a trend.” He went on to suggest that the federal government should more strictly enforce federal laws against recreational marijuana, even in states that have voted to legalize it, and further prescribed the need for a crackdown on heroin.

Sessions is a vestige from the old guard of crime policy, which believes that “getting tough” on drugs is the path to ending addiction. He has railed against marijuana, both medical and recreational. He supports further militarization of police forces, civil asset forfeiture and once proposed imposing the death penalty on twice-convicted drug dealers. In other words, he’s a virulent supporter of what former President Richard Nixon termed in 1971, the “War on Drugs.”

The War on Drugs should be something that self-proclaimed conservatives abhor. After all, it is perhaps the most oppressive institution in the United States today, and ineffective in achieving its desired goal.

The prison system is supposed to be one that rehabilitates criminals and seamlessly returns them to society. This model does not work for drug crimes. Addiction should be treated as a public health issue, not as something that can be treated by giving someone a criminal record. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 89 percent of people who needed drug treatment did not get it. Meanwhile, according to the FBI, over 1.5 million people were arrested for drug crimes in 2015, the vast majority for possession.

“Tough on crime” laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s, most famously by former President Bill Clinton, make it incredibly difficult for former convicts to re-enter society. People with previous drug offenses are barred from public housing. If they move in with their family right after prison (as one would reasonably expect), their entire family is subject to eviction. Certain professions that require licensing do not allow ex-cons to become certified. Most employers include “the box” on job applications, asking if the applicant has a criminal record. Studies show that people forced to mark this box are far less likely to even get called back about a job, let alone actually get one. Criminals are also ineligible for many safety net programs that the rest of us use to pick ourselves up after a tough break. We strip offenders of nearly all the tools necessary for economic integration, and then pretend we don’t know why three-quarters of drug offenders re-enter the criminal justice system within five years.

The only logical path forward on drug policy is decriminalization and treatment, and not just of marijuana. To truly end the opioid crisis, we need smarter drug policy that treats the disease of addiction rather than one that chases some Old Testament sense of justice or morality. We need to be brutally honest with ourselves about what works and what doesn’t. Criminalization, creating millions of permanent second-class citizens and locking people in steel cages do not work. Supervised injection sites work to decrease overdose deaths. Needle exchanges are successful in stopping HIV in its tracks. Treating addiction, rather than harshly punishing someone for being an addict, works.

If the Trump administration truly wants to combat the drug issues faced by the United States, it should take a page from Portugal, which decriminalized all drugs in 2001. Since then, past-month and past-year rates of drug use have dropped, especially among young people. The number of drug-related deaths plummeted, as did the number of new HIV cases among drug users. In Portugal, there are only three drug-caused deaths per million adults, far lower than the rate across the European Union and in the United States. Portugal decided to use money that would have been spent on prisons on treatment instead. Now, addicts have access to the most medically-effective treatments.

Decriminalizing dangerous drugs like heroin may seem counterintuitive, but it has shown to work, while our current “war” has proven to be a catastrophic, expensive failure. We need smarter, evidence-based policy that treats the underlying issues of addiction and the problems that stem from it. The era of “getting tough” on drugs must end because if we don’t radically re-think our approach, we’ll continue to make the same mistakes, and people will suffer as a result.

Connor O'Brien is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in economics with a minor in history. His column, "Policy Over Politics," runs on alternate Thursdays.

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Connor O'Brien

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