My son Robert was one of more than 45,000 people who died of an opioid overdose in 2017. He was a precious young man, only 25 years old, loved by many and full of promise. Robert graduated high school at Jackson Prep in 2009 where he enjoyed playing football and basketball. He was a graduate of Ole Miss and a huge rebel fan. He was a member of Phi Delta Theta Fraternity.
Robert dearly loved his family and his many friends. He had a way of making people feel at ease and comfortable. He was blessed with an effervescent spirit and a wonderful wit. He could light up a room with his presence; he was just that likeable. But I lost him.
The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on our nation and the world. Our citizens have responded by social distancing, wearing masks, sheltering at home and sanitizing our hands. Through these measures, we are attempting to reduce harm in order to save lives. Although the strategies look different, the concept of harm reduction is also valuable for another health issue—drug use.
Inflicting harsher penalties has not worked.
The War on Drugs has not worked.
For each of the 128 people continuing to die every day from an opioid overdose nationally, there is a devastated family, friends and community left behind. Our collective response has been to use harsher criminal penalties in an attempt to strong-arm our way into eliminating drug use.
The Mississippi Department of Corrections reports that 20% of people in Mississippi prisons are there on a non-violent drug offense. That’s almost 4,000 people. Alternate measures need to be implemented. An analysis across states published in 2018 found that longer prison sentences for drug crimes do not decrease rates of drug use, arrests or overdose deaths. Harsher penalties do not work.
We’ve seen important effects to implement health-centered strategies instead, such as distribution of naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal medication. Medication Assisted Treatment, such as suboxone, has also become a strong option in opioid-addiction treatment because of higher rates of long-term sobriety success and lower rates of death for people who use it. These are ways of reducing harm and saving lives.
But there’s more we can do. When I first learned of syringe exchange programs, where people who inject drugs can access clean syringes, I was shocked and highly skeptical. Then I began to study this concept and learned that people who participate in these programs are five times more likely to enter treatment for their addiction than people who don’t. They bring people who use drugs into contact with health-care providers.
Currently, Mississippi prohibits syringe exchange programs, but we can change our laws to allow them, as our conservative neighbors in Florida did last year.
Johann Hari wrote this in his New York Times bestseller “Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs”: “You and the people you love are just smudges on a much larger canvas. If you stay where you are—focused only on the shape of your own little smudges, this year like last year and the year before—you will never understand more than you do now. But what if you found a way to step back and look, for once, at the entire painting?”
When I stepped back after Robert’s death and looked at the whole painting of drug use, I saw that the war on drugs has not and will not ever stop the problem. Placing people in jail for drug use perpetuates the cycle of addiction by piling on even more shame and disconnection.
Ten percent of Americans will struggle with drug addiction during their lifetime, the National Institutes of Health reports. Sadly, that could be your neighbor, your friend and even your loved one.
Addiction is not a moral failing or a weakness. It is a complicated health issue. Since my son’s death I began to meet people in recovery who had struggled with addiction, and I listened to their stories. Like most of us, their stories were of the joys and sorrows of life, and the turns their lives had taken when they made their best and worst choices. I realized they were people very much like me, and their stories give me hope.
May we have the strength and courage to uphold the respect and dignity of every human being. And as we look beyond our tiny smudges at the bigger picture, using harm-reduction strategies for our health crisis of addiction is the courageously humane response.
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