March 1, 2016

Alternative drug policies taking hold

Popular Resistance - In early February, a series of bills were introduced in the Maryland state legislature that would decriminalize small amounts of drugs for personal use, expand access to treatment in emergency rooms and hospitals, and allow for consumption rooms where people would be able to use safely under medical supervision.

Polling commissioned by the Drug Policy Alliance of prospective voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina showed a strong majority of bipartisan support in favor of decriminalizing drug use and possession.

Legislation allowing for syringe exchange to reduce HIV risk is making headway in Florida. Meanwhile, an opioid overdose prevention bill sailed through the New Mexico state legislature with unanimous support.

This week, Ithaca, NY made national headlines with the first ever comprehensive municipal plan to address over-incarceration and the skyrocketing overdose deaths, while creating a comprehensive health-based approach to drug policy. This plan, championed by the charismatic young Ithaca mayor Svante Myrick, particularly sparked the attention of media because, as in Maryland, it includes safe consumption rooms, an innovation that has been already used with effective results in reducing overdose deaths in parts of Europe and Canada.

Equally noteworthy is the premiere of the PBS Frontline two-hour special “Chasing Heroin,” chronicling the stories of several people battling opiate addiction and presenting visionary new approaches such as Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), which gives police the mandate to refer drug users to health services instead of arresting them.

All of these developments reflect an unprecedented momentum and mainstreaming of core concepts of harm reduction, a philosophy that replaces punishment with compassion, health, dignity and scientific reason. As Mikel Kowalcyk, a LEAD outreach coordinator in Seattle, WA explains in “Chasing Heroin,” “The harm reduction model is people are going to use drugs. Let’s make it safe for them to use drugs until they are ready to do something different.”

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