Criminalizing drug use is doing more harm than good in combating the opioid epidemic, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.
Punishment should be replaced by “community-based solutions” for dealing with opioid addiction, Vera said in a report produced with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The recommendations in the Vera report are based upon an extensive literature review that focused on the “intersection of criminal justice, substance use, and harm reduction.”
Vera researchers also took a case study approach by focusing on Ross County, Ohio, and Atlanta, Ga., both places that have taken different approaches in handling drug problems in their communities.
Overwhelmingly, researchers found that criminalizing and punishing drug users has been doing more harm than good—noting that the “war on drugs” has disproportionately affected minority communities.
Treatment options, including broader access to Naloxone, an intranasal or injectable antidote that reverses respiratory depression from opioid overdose, can make a big difference, the report said.
A national study of opioid overdose deaths from 2000 to 2014 found that states with Good Samaritan laws (which protect people reporting overdoses from criminal penalty), working in tandem with strong naloxone access laws had lower rates of overdose mortality, particularly among African Americans, the report said.
“Putting an end to substance use disorder requires community collaboration,” said Laken Woods, a peer recovery counselor in Ross County, Ohio.
“This new research from Vera confirms what I see in my work: You have to meet people where they are and make sure they’re supported, not punished.”
Vera researchers estimate that, to have a maximum beneficial impact, the number of naloxone doses distributed “should be about 20 times the number of a region’s opioid-related deaths.”
Naloxone distribution should also be coupled with education on how to use the nasal spray, how to spot overdoses and an educational overview of relevant laws, the researchers added.
Vera researchers also found that Syringe Service Programs (SSPs) are highly effective at reducing the spread of blood-borne diseases like HIV and hepatitis C.
Researchers also suggested decriminalizing what is typically considered “drug paraphernalia” such as syringes and other injection equipment so that drug users can feel free to participate in the SSPs.
Taking that a step further, Vera suggested expanding Supervised Consumption Sites (SCSs). These sites are safe and supervised injection facilities with “drug consumption rooms” and “overdose prevention sites or centers” where drug users bring their own drugs to be provided sterile equipment.
The users would take their drugs under the supervision of trained staff “who are prepared to respond to overdose incidents and other emergencies.”
While the idea may seem dangerous, or even radical, Vera researchers explain, “[SCSs] have shown positive benefits for public health, including reductions in HIV- and HCV-related risk behavior increased connections to substance use treatment and primary health care, and reductions in the number of overdose deaths.”
“There has not been a single reported overdose death at any SCS worldwide,” researchers detail.
Community-based strategies can also include medication-assisted treatment and heroin-assisted treatment, drug courts, and reentry programs—all of which have shown promise in helping people overcome their drug addictions.
Finally, Vera researchers argued that law enforcement must take a different approach to handle drug addiction, noting many police departments have already been developing alternatives to arresting drug abusers.
“These alternatives may be formal programs or informal practices in which police officers use their discretion to divert people to treatment and supportive services,” the report said
The authors of this study were: Jason Tan de Bibiana, a Vera research associate; Charlotte Miller, special assistant; Leah Pope, senior research fellow; Susan Stellin, reporter, researcher and adjunct professor at The New School; Jim Parsons, vice president, and research director; and David Cloud, former senior program associate and secretary of the Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition.
The full study can be accessed here.
Andrea Cipriano is a staff writer for The Crime Report.