Let’s start with an easy one – sterile syringe access programs. We know from decades of research and implementation the world over that these programs prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C among people who inject drugs. And yet our federal government still prohibits the use of federal HIV prevention funding for syringe access programs, citing erroneous drug war rhetoric about “encouraging drug use.” While we could consider all of the data from around the world, in the case of syringe access, we have plenty of evidence from locally funded programs here in the U.S. that have proven this scare-mongering to be untrue. Syringe access programs prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and do not encourage or increase rates of drug use. Period. This has been proven from Bangkok to Bakersfield – so why is Washington dragging its feet?
Next up is another proven method of preventing HIV and other diseases. Safe injection facilities (SIFs) are places where people who inject drugs can do so under medical supervision. These facilities reduce overdose deaths and the spread of diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C, and also to draw hard-to-reach users into treatment and rehabilitation. While the idea of facilitating intravenous drug use might raise eyebrows as syringe access once did, the results are incontrovertible. More than 90 facilities are serving clients — and saving lives — as we speak, in countries including Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland. It’s time we started raising our eyebrows at a government willing to ignore the evidence in favor of drug war rhetoric.
This next innovative idea saves lives and is successfully treating opiate addiction in a number of European countries including Denmark, Germany, Switzerland and the U.K: heroin-assisted treatment. This treatment involves strictly regulated and controlled prescription of pharmaceutical heroin to help severely dependent heroin users who have not succeeded with other treatment options. The programs have been shown to significantly improve participants’ health, their housing and employment situations, and to dramatically decrease criminal behavior. Impressive results like these should have this idea on the tip of every legislator’s tongue.
And, finally, the success story that has dramatic implications for drug policy the world over: decriminalization. Ten years ago Portugal shifted its method of dealing with drug use and misuse from a punitive approach to a health-centered one by rapidly expanding access to treatment and decriminalizing drugs – all of them. Rates of overdose and HIV infection have dropped precipitously and none of the hysterical predictions of Lisbon becoming a drug tourism capital have materialized. In fact, following the introduction of decriminalization, Portugal has maintained drug use rates well below the European average – and far lower than the United States. Most importantly, youth drug use rates have dropped – a goal we can all agree on. It’s a bold experiment – but didn’t the U.S. used to be a place known for its bold experiments?
In light of forty years of failure, would it hurt to at least try some of these options, perhaps beginning at the local or state level? How much more money and life must be wasted in these fruitless efforts?