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Drug addiction isn’t what most people think

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Contrary to popular assumption, only 10 percent of people who use drugs (including alcohol) have a problem with their substance. Let me ask you, alcohol drinker or pot smoker: Are you an addict? Your friends or family? There are harm ratings for drugs, first published in the journal Lancet in 2010: Alcohol has a harm score of 72 (out of 100), heroin 55, crack 54, methamphetamine 32, tobacco 27, and cannabis 20. The harm score equals how many users the drug harms, plus how much the drug may cause the user to harm other people. This does not say drugs are safe, but it says that drugs are not what the War on Drugs has taught us.
The U.S. Drug War was launched in the 1930s by Harry Anslinger, who headed the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Racism and fear were drivers. Blacks, Mexicans and Chinese were using drugs, forgetting their place and menacing white people. The U.S. and Mexico had successful heroin clinics at that time (not cut with additives that increase addiction rates and harm). Anslinger shut them down with jail threats to U.S. doctors and threats by Congress to cut foreign aid programs. Prohibitionists and incarceration replaced medical treatment, and gangsters/cartels were provided new business. The U.S. now spends $41 billion per year arresting, trying and jailing users (10 percent of whom are addicts) and sellers.
The drug war has shaped the thought that addicts and users need to spend time in jail and learn a lesson. Trauma, life crisis or isolation is what leads to an unhealthy bond with behaviors that become addictive (like gambling, sex, checking your phone) – and with drugs. In Vietnam, 20 percent of American troops used heroin, but 95 percent of them stopped when they returned home (trauma and crisis done). People are prescribed and use opioids (and alcohol and weed) all the time for pain and do not become addicted or use the drug past its point of need.
People don’t want their tax dollars spent reviving someone who has overdosed with naloxone. A recent Indiana study indicated they spend $8.2 billion annually on tobacco and opioid addictions – $6.8 million for tobacco, $1.4 million for opioids. Dollars spent on drug use incarceration can be shifted to medical treatment, psychotherapy and disease prevention. Hepatitis C is now the number one reportable disease in Hamilton County. Scott County, Indiana, saw 188 people diagnosed with HIV in less than 15 months because of opioid needle sharing. If drugs were taxed at a similar rate to alcohol and tobacco, they would raise an additional $46.7 billion a year. For that money you could provide widespread treatment and prevention for every drug addict in America (all drugs, including alcohol and tobacco).
In Hamilton County, there are positive actions taking place. The Cincinnati Exchange Program provides syringe exchange, treatment referrals, testing and no shame. In Colerain, follow up is provided to anyone that has overdosed, offering treatment options. Now, the city of Norwood has followed suit. We have sufficient healthcare infrastructure to triage addicts to treatment, counseling and health care. It’s 10 percent of users. We can do this!
In the 1950s, Harry Anslinger jailed Billie Holiday in a hospital room for her heroin addiction, and she died there. Yet he arranged to have Sen. Joe McCarthy’s heroin provided by a pharmacy when the senator refused to stop using. The crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980’s enforced high rates of incarceration on blacks (while 75 percent of cocaine users were white). Time to redirect the legacy of this shameful drug war and mandate public health and law enforcement tax dollars are effective, transparent and about improving outcomes.

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