Why do we still think that drug use is law enforcement issue? Our disdain for drugs and drug users goes very deep. We are bombarded with images and media stories about the horrible impacts of drugs. We have stigmatized entire communities. We applaud military-inspired operations that bring down drug dealers and we appear unfazed by building more jails to incarcerate people whose only crime is using drugs. Virtually millions of people are caught up in a hopeless cycle of incarceration, violence and poverty that has been created by our drug laws and not the drugs themselves. How do I explain to people that drug users deserve care and support and the freedom to live their lives when all we see are images of guns and handcuffs and jail cells?
Let’s be clear: criminalization is just a way to institutionalize stigma. Making drugs illegal does nothing to stop people from using them. Our paralysis to see things differently is also based on an entirely false narrative about drug use. We have been led to believe that drug users are irresponsible people who just want to get high, and then through their own personal failings spiral down into a life of crime and poverty, losing their jobs, their families and, ultimately, their lives. In reality, most drug users have a story, whether it’s childhood trauma, sexual abuse, mental illness or a personal tragedy. The drugs are used to numb the pain. We must understand that as we approach people with so much trauma. At its core, our drug addiction treatment programs are really a social justice issue. While the media may focus on overdose deaths like Prince and Michael Jackson, the majority of the suffering happens to people who are living on the margins, the poor and the dispossessed.
If you’re lucky enough, you may get into a detox program. If you live in a community with Suboxone or methadone, you may get on a substitution program. Hardly ever would we offer people what they desperately need to survive: a safe prescription for opioids. Starting with abstinence is like asking a new diabetic to quit sugar or a severe asthmatic to start running marathons or a depressed person to just be happy. For any other medical condition, we would never start with the most extreme option. What makes us think that strategy would work for something as complex as addiction? While unintentional overdoses are not new, the scale of the current crisis is unprecedented. The Center for Disease Control estimated that 64,000 Americans died of a drug overdose in 2016, far exceeding car crashes or homicides.
Drug-related mortality is now the leading cause of death among men and women between 20 and 50 years old in North America Think about that. How did we get to this point, and why now? There is a kind of perfect storm around opioids. Drugs like Oxycontin, Percocet and Dilau did have been liberally distributed for decades for all kinds of pain. It is estimated that two million Americans are daily opioid users, and over 60 million people received at least one prescription for opioids last year. This massive dump of prescription drugs into communities has provided a steady source for people wanting to self-medicate. In response to this prescription epidemic, people have been cut off, and this has greatly reduced the street supply The unintended but predictable consequence is an overdose epidemic.
Many people who were reliant on a steady supply of prescription drugs turned to heroin. And now the illegal drug market has tragically switched to synthetic drugs, mainly Fentanyl. These new drugs are cheap, potent and extremely hard to dose. People are literally being poisoned. Can you imagine if this was any other kind of poisoning epidemic? What if thousands of people started dying from poisoned meat or baby formula or coffee? We would be treating this as a true emergency. We would immediately be supplying safer alternatives. There would be changes in legislation, and we would be supporting the victims and their families. But for the drug overdose epidemic, we have done none of that. We continue to demonize the drugs and the people who use them and blindly pour even more resources into law enforcement.