Our heroin epidemic is forcing a change in drug strategy.
The old-fashioned punitive approach has just filled our prisons. Now, many on the front line are playing a new role in some of the hardest-hit communities.
An Associated Press story told of police, paramedics and counselors in Ohio who quickly steer addicts who overdose into recovery programs. A Massachusetts program made headlines last year for helping addicts get into treatment — no questions asked — if they turned in their drugs and paraphernalia.
Police there still make arrests, but focus on dealers and doctors who overprescribe, instead of addicts.
The White House has led a criminal justice reform campaign that seeks to commute prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and promote drug courts as alternatives to prison, but too many families have been affected for this to remain a strictly partisan issue.
GOP presidential hopefuls such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich have acknowledged the effectiveness of drug courts and Medicaid-funded treatment resources, while former Gov. Jeb Bush has called for an end to the stigma of addiction. Bush’s daughter is an addict and one-time presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina’s stepdaughter died from an overdose.
As doctors cracked down on abuse of prescription opioids in recent years, droves of addicts were pushed to cheaper, and more easily accessible, street heroin. With alternatives like fentanyl, 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin, and other even stronger synthetics available, overdoses are peaking.
Still, some Republicans in Congress want to block bipartisan legislation to let judges reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.
“If this grand experiment in criminal leniency goes awry, how many lives will be ruined?” asked Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. “How much of the anti-crime progress of the last generation will be wiped away?”
By “progress,” Cotton must mean the rise in federal prison inmates from 25,000 in 1980 to more than 200,000 today. And with heroin-related deaths rising — up 39 percent from 2012 to 2013 and nearly four times as high since 2002, according to The New York Times — the real question is whether we can afford not to change our strategy.