More than 100,000 people lost their lives to drug overdose in a recent 12-month period, according to provisional numbers just released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This grim news represents another frightening annual surge of nearly 30%, and a terrifying increase when compared to the 41,000 drug fatalities of a decade ago — a time that drew national attention to our “overdose crisis” and ramped up substantial resources to combat it.
It couldn’t be clearer that we must change our approach. Doing the same things and expecting different results makes no sense and serves only to risk losing more of our loved ones. Fortunately, there are programs proven to reduce overdose fatalities. Countering the failed tactics of the war on drugs, such initiatives take a public health approach, providing support for people struggling with a substance use disorder.
Alarmed by the dramatic uptick in overdose deaths, the federal government acknowledged the need to embrace ideas once seen as controversial and broadly known as harm reduction. “If we want to keep people alive we’ve got to try everything the evidence says might work,” said Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra in an interview on NPR.
Syringe service programs are an example of a health-centered life-saving initiative. Providing clean supplies, access to social services, and connections to community resources including substance use and mental health treatment, these programs offer support for people who use drugs in lieu of punitive measures that have fueled the likelihood of death before recovery.
Long endorsed by the World Health Organization, syringe service programs have an impressive track record of positive outcomes. Not only do they lower overdose deaths and reduce the spread of infectious diseases such as HIV, but program participants are five times more likely than non-participants to seek treatment and three times more likely to stop using drugs. These programs certainly do not enable drug use, but instead enable health and hope.
However, syringe programs are compromised when drug paraphernalia is illegal. Currently, the possession of paraphernalia (without the presence of any drug) is a criminal offense, with violators subject to steep fines and as much as two years of imprisonment. People struggling with drug use are understandably reluctant to participate in programs that provide safe supplies if they risk arrest for possession of paraphernalia once they step outside.
Recognizing this barrier, Maryland’s General Assembly acted this year to decriminalize possession of drug paraphernalia. Crafted after months of consultations with public health professionals and community stakeholders, the legislation received unequivocal support from every major health organization in the state, including MedChi – The Maryland State Medical Society. The final bill passed both houses of the legislature with overwhelming majorities.
In addition to eliminating arrests for the suspicion of a crime and the harms inflicted on the lives of real people — most often the marginalized — this bill would reduce the burden on the criminal justice system, allowing greater focus on violent crimes. Our record-breaking mass incarceration is a testament to the fact that we arrest too many people, and incarcerating those who don’t violate the rights of others has served no purpose other than to undermine their capacity to take care of themselves.
Passing this legislation was a positive step but, tragically, special interests prevailed upon Gov. Hogan and he vetoed the bill with uninformed, if not downright far-fetched, reasoning such as preventing dealers from stockpiling and selling syringes, a practice unheard of as dealers have no incentive to be bothered with fifty-cent syringes. But there is still hope.
We urge Senate President Bill Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne Jones to schedule a vote to override the veto when the legislature convenes in special session on December 6. If given the opportunity, we trust our legislators will again do the right thing and pass this life-saving bill.
Jessie Dunleavy, author of “Cover My Dreams in Ink” and a drug policy reform advocate, lives in Annapolis. Thomas Higdon, survivor of addiction and a state organizer with the Recovery Advocacy Project, lives in Reisterstown. Both are members of the People’s Commission to Decriminalize Maryland.
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