Pubdate: Thu, 11 Sep 2014
Source: Suffolk News-Herald (VA)
Copyright: 2014 Suffolk News-Herald
Author: Robert Sharpe


Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe has announced a 10-step plan to expand 
health care to Virginians. Step nine is to take bold actions to reduce 
deaths from prescription drug and heroin abuse.

Last year, more Virginians died of overdose deaths than were killed in 
car accidents. The prescription drug problem has reached a crisis in 
Virginia, where some county death rates are the highest in the entire 

McAuliffe intends to reduce the number of drug-related deaths in 
Virginia and will create a task force to combat prescription drug and 
heroin abuse.

There is much Virginia can do to reduce overdose deaths. First and 
foremost, the Virginia General Assembly should pass a Good Samaritan law 
that provides immunity to drug users who seek medical attention for 
themselves or a friend in response to an overdose event.

At present, illegal drug users are reluctant to seek medical attention. 
Attempting to save the life of a friend could result in a murder charge.

Virginia also should expand access to naloxone, a proven opioid overdose 
antidote that is easily administered by first responders and drug users. 
The combination of a Good Samaritan law and broader access to naloxone 
would go a long way toward reducing overdose deaths in Virginia. The 
biggest obstacle to saving lives is overzealous law enforcement.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has proposed making it easier to 
prosecute dealers whose drugs cause a fatal overdose. The line between 
small-time dealers and users is blurred. Increasing penalties will deter 
life-saving calls to 911.

Moreover, the reason Virginia is seeing an increase in heroin use is 
because of a crackdown on prescription narcotics. Drug enforcement is 
driving prescription drug abusers into the arms of Mexican drug cartels. 
The end result is an increase in overdose risk.

Street heroin purity is inconsistent. A user accustomed to low-quality 
heroin who uses pure heroin will overdose. The inevitable tough-on-drugs 
response to overdose deaths threatens public safety.

Attempts to limit drug supply while demand remains constant increase the 
profitability of drug trafficking. For addictive drugs like heroin, a 
spike in street prices leads desperate addicts to increase criminal 
activity to feed desperate habits. The drug war doesn't fight crime; it 
fuels crime.

The governor's task force should recognize that both drug abuse and 
enforcement can cause harm. Turnout at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings 
would be dramatically lower if alcoholism were a criminal offense.

Eliminating the penalties associated with illicit drug use would 
encourage the honest discussion needed to facilitate rehabilitation and 
save lives.

One final action Virginia can take to reduce overdose deaths is to 
legalize medical marijuana. New research published in the Journal of the 
American Medical Association shows that states with open medical 
marijuana access have a 25-percent lower opioid overdose death rate than 
marijuana prohibition states.

This research finding has huge implications. The phrase "if it saves one 
life" has been used to justify all manner of drug war abuses. Legal 
marijuana access has the potential to save thousands of lives.

Virginia should put aside the cultural baggage surrounding illicit drugs 
and prioritize public health.

Like it or not, drugs are here to stay. Drug policies should reduce the 
harm associated with both drug abuse and enforcement.

If we could arrest our way out of the problem, there would be no 
overdose crisis. Despite a massive prison-industrial complex, the U.S. 
has higher rates of illicit drug use than European Union countries with 
harm-reduction policies.

It's time to treat all substance abuse, legal or otherwise, as the 
public health problem that it is.

Robert Sharpe is a policy analyst with Common Sense for Drug Policy, a 
nonprofit organization dedicated to reforming drug policy and expanding 
harm reduction.
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