By: Marcus J. Hopkins, Blogger
If the heroin epidemic of the 1970s taught us anything, it’s that heroin use mostly affects the inner city minority communities, so white people who live outside of those cities don’t have anything to worry about, right?
Wrong. Much to the chagrin of anti-drug propagandists, this narrative was then, and is now, entirely false. One of the biggest fallacies of America’s drug policy is the fact that most of the prevention-based legislative efforts have been based off of similar false narratives, shoddy “science (most of which is relegated to stereotyping drug users), and a desire to punish, rather than prevent.
The latter – punishment over prevention – is a recurring theme in American drug politics, and that is arguably best reflected in how our states approach the issue of syringe exchanges. Despite the Appalachian Region (including AL, GA, KY, MD, MS, NY, NC, OH, PA, SC, TN, VA, & WV) having some of the highest rates of opioid prescriptions per 100 people, the highest rates of Hepatitis B and C, and some of the highest opioid-related overdoses in the nation, there has been little political will to enter into the scientifically uncontroversial, but politically controversial, business of syringe exchanges.
The premise behind syringe exchanges is this – we understand that people are going to use injection drugs; providing them with a safe way and place to exchange used needles for clean ones helps to stem the spread of virulent diseases that often run rampant within these communities. Sadly, the punishment-based approach to dealing with drug abuse operates off the premise that drug abusers know the risks of their bad habits, and if they’re stupid enough to use injection drugs, they deserve whatever health consequences come their way. Not only is that premise callous, it is also costly.
In the past few years, some states have begun to learn this lesson the hard way – Scott County, Indiana’s 2015 epidemic of IDU-related HIV and HCV, for example – and have begun to recognize that the conventional approach to dealing with the opioid and heroin epidemics has been largely unsuccessful. Rather than quelling the epidemic, the punitive approach to coping with addiction has simply driven it underground where it cannot be effectively monitored, diagnosed, or treated. This has helped to create a dangerous breeding ground for the spread of disease as a result of IDU that was largely thought to have ended in the 1990s.
Thankfully, several states’ law enforcement communities and local governments have recognized that the punitive approach to this problem has not brought about satisfactory results, and have come to be some of the most ardent supporters of both syringe exchange programs and rehabilitative and recovery services – two measures that research indicates as being the most effective tools in stemming the spread of preventable IDU-related disease exposure. These programs also offer support staff who are there to engage participants in confronting their problems with addiction, as well as helping to provide linkage to other important social services, such as housing and healthcare.
While we clearly have a long way to go in providing addiction and recovery services to the underserved communities in Appalachia, there are positive strides being made and steps being taken, although this is happening mostly on the local level. The best way to extend these programs to hard to reach communities is to advocate for their inclusion in state-level legislative initiatives, and doing that will require advocates to demonstrate how these programs help to save states money in these times of economic uncertainty. When faced with empirical and quantitative evidence, even the most fiscally conservative debt hawk can’t deny that these measure save not only lives, but precious resources.
Disclaimer: HEAL Blogs do not necessarily reflect the views of the Community Access National Network (CANN), but rather they provide a neutral platform whereby the author serves to promote open, honest discussion about Hepatitis-related issues and updates. Please note that the content of some of the HEAL Blogs might be graphic due to the nature of the issues being addressed in it.