The War On Drugs Failed. Now It’s a War For Recovery (Audio)

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When President Richard Nixon made the war on drugs one of his signature domestic campaigns, his administration set into motion one of the most unpopular cycles of American social change. Effectively criminalizing all drug-related activities – from the high level trafficking to the pedestrian smoking of a joint – the war on drugs led directly to some immensely negative consequences which continue to reverberate today. Overpopulated prisons, racially discriminatory drug policies, and the cultivation of a robust illegal drug trade are all seen by most as being correlated to what was, at least ostensibly, a fight against the dangers of drugs. However, as countless documentary films, public outcries, and instances political fallout seem to suggest, the so-called “war on drugs” was not only a complete disaster, but in many ways criminal. Part of what makes the discussion about how to combat drugs tricky is the inherent catch-22 ingrained in its DNA. On one hand, criminalizing drug use makes it (in theory) harder to acquire illegal substances, which most would argue is an inherently good thing. And yet far too often the reality is that criminalizing them only encourages more harmful social ills to take place. Robbery, prostitution, trafficking, and murders are all possible when talking about a society in which those addicted to drugs have no safe or protected means of getting high.

Films like Michael Moore’s recent documentary Where to Invade Next and many others on the subject tackle the idea of safe havens for serious drug users, and the statistics repeatedly prove a provocative notion: that if you give people a controlled environment in which to use drugs, crime rates decrease dramatically and instances of drug-related deaths actually plummet. But why would we want people to get high in the first place? Well, when it comes to narcotics like heroin and crack cocaine, it’s not that societies want to promote drug usage, but rather create a world in which those who are struggling addiction don’t have to commit crimes against others or harm themselves in order to acquire their supply. That’s the idea behind a progressive new program being implemented in Boston, Massachusetts, where a severe heroin epidemic is claiming lives at the alarming rate of four people a day. In a report for NPR, the chief medical officer of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program is profiled ahead of this month’s opening of what sounds simple but which conveys the complexities of addressing some very complicated problems. Dr. Jessie Gaeta is helping initiate a new program which will consist of “a room with a nurse, some soft chairs and basic life-saving equipment — a place where heroin users can ride out their high, under medical supervision.”

In an area of town with the dubious distinction of being called “Methadone Mile,” this new program will join a host of similar entities around the world which have instituted “supervised injection facilities” or intravenous drug users. However, Boston’s version will differ in its procedural methods. As NPR’s Martha Bebinger reports, “[Gaeta’s] organization plans only a limited version of the sort of ‘safe place’ other countries offer. In Boston, patients will not be allowed to take drugs in the room.” The doctor describes the new program in her own words, explaining that “it’s a place where people would come if they’re high and they need a safe place to be that’s not a street corner, and not a bathroom by themselves, where they’re at high risk of dying if they do overdose.” However, the sobering realities of the current epidemic in Boston’s underbelly provide some other logistical issues that could make the fully functional execution of such an ambitious plan difficult. “Overdoses have become the leading cause of death among Boston’s homeless men and women. But will users who inject drugs or take a cocktail of pills find their way to this room?,” poses Bebinger. However, promising results in similar “safe rooms” in Australia and British Columbia are more than enough for Gaeta and others to feel optimistic. As part of the umbrella term in healthcare known as “harm reduction,” the proposed plan in Boston is part of an approach which “includes needle exchange programs so that users don’t spread infections, training in the use of naloxone, the opioid reversal drug, and more education about the dangers of opioid prescriptions and use.”

Of course, funding becomes a major obstacle in putting together an effective drug treatment program for the homeless and uninsured. Beyond the cut-and-dry issue of finances, the Boston program and others like it deal with the moral and philosophical aspects of how governments, nonprofits, and everyday citizens should think about and respond to fixing the grave mistakes made in the name of the war on drugs. President Obama has taken some bold steps when it comes to the criminal justice system, and plenty of others are also fighting to overturn harsh sentences of non-violent drug offenders who have gotten caught up in the incredibly stringent laws set forth by not only the Nixon and Reagan administrations but other presidents, as well. But when it comes to people addicted to drugs, there is often much criticism and lack of empathy. After all, they chose to get high in the first place, so why shouldn’t they be forced to deal with the consequences? But just as it is the government’s duty to prosecute criminals harming society, it is also the duty of the government to take care of its citizens, even the ones hopelessly immersed in a life of darkness and addiction.

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