Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave a speech last week in which he rightly called drug overdose deaths "the top lethal issue" in the United States. But Sessions' lock-'em-up remedy for combatting drug overdoses is not a solution.
Sessions urged law enforcement and social workers to "create and foster a culture that's hostile to drug use." In a speech in May, Sessions emphasized the need for law enforcement to stop cartels that smuggle drugs into the country and the "thugs and gangs who bring this poison into our communities."
That approach sounds a lot like the "war on drugs" that President Richard Nixon launched more than 40 years ago. By all accounts, that "war" has been a failure. Continuing down the road of locking up drug users will get the same bad results.
We can't arrest our way out of our drug problem. Even the conservative Cato Institute has called the drug war a "failure," which "contributed to an increase in drug overdoses."
Over the past 40 years, the federal government has spent more than $1 trillion on interdiction policies designed to keep illegal drugs out of the country, said Cato. Meanwhile, state and federal prison populations increased nearly 600 percent to more than 1.5 million between 1974 and 2014, according to the Sentencing Project. By comparison, the U.S. overall population increased by 51 percent during that time.
Laws must be enforced and drug dealers should be held responsible for their actions. But more emphasis should be placed on curbing drug abuse and getting help for addicts. Opioid overdoses have become a public health epidemic and should be treated as such.
Increased hostility and shame won't help addicts. Instead, law enforcement and social agencies should work together to develop a multi-pronged approach that includes enforcement, treatment, and prevention.
To his credit, Sessions did announce plans to launch a pilot program to crack down on doctors and pharmacists who overprescribe and supply opioid medications. But if he really wants to combat opioid abuse, he should join efforts by several states, including Pennsylvania, to go after Big Pharma.
Three pharmaceutical firms – McKesson, AmerisourceBergen, and Cardinal Health – distribute 85 percent of all prescription drugs in the United States. Their role in the opioid epidemic shouldn't be dismissed.
Between 2000 and 2014, the use of prescription opioids more than doubled, says the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Addiction to prescription painkillers can lead to increased heroin use, which is cheaper than pain pills. Often, the heroin is laced with fentanyl, an opiate 100 times more powerful than morphine.
The more potent drug has led to a surge in addiction and overdoses. There were more than 900 fatal drug overdoses in Philadelphia last year, a 29 percent increase compared with 2015. Statewide, nearly 5,000 people died from overdoses, a 37 percent increase.
Just cracking down on addicts won't be effective. A better approach would include expanding access to addiction medications, improving physician training, and developing partnerships at schools to help identify at-risk youths.