Give heroin users rehabilitation, not prison sentence

In my hometown, so many of my former classmates have died from drug overdoses that it’s hard to reme

In my hometown, so many of my former classmates have died from drug overdoses that it’s hard to remember off-hand exactly how many it’s been.

It seems that at least once a year, someone I know has passed away from drugs — almost exclusively a young person — and the local community is shocked. Little is done in terms of public policy. Sometimes we hold a community meeting. Then, a few months later, it happens again — and it’s almost always thanks to heroin.

Forty years out from the last major national epidemic, heroin is no doubt making a comeback — and it’s harming communities all over New York state. It’s no surprise: Heroin is now quite cheap and easy to come by.

Since New York City is the distribution hub of the Northeast, the closer you are to the city, the less expensive it becomes, which is bad news for us. According to some reports, small packets of the drug can sell for between just $6 and $10.

To provide some context for the scale of this crisis: New York state has seen a 67 percent increase in heroin seizures in the last four years. In fact, more than a third of nationwide heroin seizures by the Drug Enforcement Administration took place in New York state since October 2013. In previous years, that share was closer to one-fifth.

This has led to a serious and unfolding public health issue. A staggering 478 people in New York overdosed on heroin in 2012 — a more than twofold increase from the 215 deaths seen just four years earlier.

Fortunately, we are starting to do something about it. Most significantly, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office is providing $5 million to reimburse police departments for the cost of purchasing the anti-overdose drug naloxone. This has had a significant effect in smaller trial runs, saving hundreds of lives in New York City and Long Island.

Democratic lawmakers have gone further, pushing for more funding for treatment, greater naloxone access for EMTs, and for forcing insurance companies to provide for rehabilitation.

Notably, a bill that would increase public access to naloxone has recently passed both chambers of the Legislature. This piece of legislation, if made into law, would make it easier for addicts and their families to access this life-saving drug. (Unfortunately, it’s currently awaiting Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature.)

Even Sen. Chuck Schumer is getting in on the act, calling for a $100 million federal program in his effort to help curb the growing epidemic. Part of his effort involves building a heroin-tracking database to assist in law enforcement efforts to destroy the regional traffic. His efforts should be supported by federal lawmakers. (Failing that, the state should take increased action on its own.)

Unfortunately, yet more needs to be done. The most recent state budget includes just $2.45 million in anti-heroin efforts. But that’s really only a drop in the bucket as far as statewide efforts are concerned. We can do far better in a state budget of $138 billion.

There is a more radical step that we could take, but it involves a complete rethinking of the way that we approach the drug problem. Rather than viewing it as a policing problem, we should shift gears and view it more as a public health risk.

The good news is: This approach isn’t some bizarre untested fantasy. A model for this sort of action can be found in Portugal, which in 2001 enacted a massive drug decriminalization effort. For instance, in Portugal, you can possess 1 gram of heroin without penalty. It doesn’t mean that drug use is legal or consequence-free. People who are found to be addicts are strongly encouraged (usually by way of a fine) to enter drug rehab facilities, where they can begin to mend their lives instead of doing hard time.

It’s important to note: Nothing in the Portuguese example suggests we should lighten up on dealers and distributors. In fact, they should be chased down and prosecuted more harshly than they already are.

But by treating the users as patients that require rehabilitation rather than imprisonment, we will encourage them to seek help. In Portugal, the stigma surrounding drug use has dropped — and the very real effect has been that users seek treatment rather than hiding in the shadows.

Whatever this relaxing of criminal law has done to encourage drug use has been massively overshadowed by the drop in use by young people. For example, lifetime heroin use among 16- to 18-year-olds dropped from 2.5 percent to 1.8 percent in the first 10 years of the law’s enactment.

Moreover, HIV infections among drug users in Portugal dropped by 17 percent when the government encouraged safe needle use. And perhaps most importantly, record drug deaths have dropped significantly — only rising back up as toxological measurement technologies have improved to modern standards, thereby recording more drug deaths that otherwise would just slip under the radar.

New York is not going to decriminalize heroin. But what we can do is use the Portuguese example and seek to rehabilitate victims of drug abuse rather than punish them. The stigma surrounding drug users is that they’re all just irresponsible junkies.

But every one of those deaths is a life ended, a family torn apart and a future cut short. Rather than using money to put victims in jail, we should use money to put victims into treatment — and hit the distributors even harder.

Steve Keller lives in Averill Park and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

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