Editorial: Sometimes They Tell the Truth

David Borden, Executive Director

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David Borden
It's alternately refreshing or appalling to hear public officials who deal with drug policy occasionally tell the truth about it. This week reformers got to bring home some of both.

The refreshing truth-telling came from Great Britain, where a Parliamentary Committee harshly tore into the official drug classification scheme used in the Misuse of Drugs Act, and the agency that is responsible for maintaining it. Many of the rankings seemed to have resulted from "knee-jerk responses to media storms," the committee charged, with no consistency and "no solid evidence to back-up the view that classification had a deterrent effect." "The current classification system is riddled with anomalies and clearly not fit for its purpose," the chairman said. "From what we have seen, the Home Office and ACMD approach to classification seems to have been based on ad hockery and conservatism." (See two articles below in this issue to read all about it.)

Gotta like that! But now for one that I don't like -- not at all. In Philadelphia, one of the cities suffering under the crisis of fentanyl-laced heroin and the resulting wave of often fatal overdoses, the harm reduction program Prevention Point Philadelphia, partnering with a local physician, has begun to help distribute naloxone, a medication that if used soon enough during an overdose can save the victim's life.

Naloxone distribution is a type of program known as "harm reduction," the idea of which is that since we know some people are going to use drugs regardless of how we fight them, there are things that can be done to help them save their lives and the lives of others -- even before they stop using drugs, for that matter even if they never stop using drugs. Needle exchange programs are another example of harm reduction at work.

The drug czar's office reacted to the PPP venture with criticism. If heroin users have a chance of surviving an overdose, the reasoning went, it is "disinhibiting" to the objective of getting addicts to just stop using the stuff. "We don't want to send the message out that there is a safe way to use heroin," an ONDCP spokesperson said. But "dead addicts don't recover," as the common mantra in the harm reduction field goes.

While the drug czar's position is dead wrong about this -- deadly wrong, in fact -- the comment seems a fairly truthful explanation of the horrible way that many drug warriors think. It is a direct corollary of the spokesperson's comment that it is better to have people who could be saved instead die, in order to dissuade others from using drugs -- better to make sure that drugs kill -- so that everyone will be sure that drugs do kill. But the dead from overdoses are definitely (and permanently) dead, whereas those who, through the withholding of livesaving assistance to some, are thereby saved from death through their own choices, may or may not exist.

Those who oppose harm reduction are in effect supporting "harm intensification" instead -- a deliberate attempt through policy to increase the dangers of drugs -- at a cost of lives, and in my view of morality too.

But that is what prohibition is truly about, harm intensification on a global scale. Hence the need for legalization instead -- so morally defunct ideas like those expressed this week by the drug czar's office can be laid to rest and their ghastly consequences finally be made to cease.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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