Pubdate: Wed, 01 Oct 2014
Source: Roanoke Times (VA)
Copyright: 2014 Roanoke Times
Author: Robert Sharpe


Gov. Terry McAuliffe has announced a 10-step plan to expand health care 
to more than 200,000 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 nation. 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 that Virginia can do to reduce overdose deaths. First and 
foremost, the General Assembly needs to 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 needs to 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 coupled with broader 
access to naloxone would go a long way toward reducing overdose deaths 
in Virginia. The biggest obstacle to saving lives is overzealous drug 
war enforcement.

Attorney General Mark Herring has proposed making it easier to prosecute 
dealers whose drugs cause a fatal overdose. The line between small-time 
drug dealers and users is often blurred. Increasing penalties will only 
deter life-saving calls to 911. Moreover, the reason Virginia is seeing 
an increase in illegal heroin use is because of an ongoing crackdown on 
prescription narcotics. Drug enforcement is driving prescription drug 
abusers into the arms of Mexican drug cartels. The end result is a 
dramatic increase in overdose risk.

The quality and purity of street heroin fluctuates tremendously. A user 
accustomed to low-quality heroin who unknowingly uses pure heroin will 
overdose. The inevitable tough-on-drugs response to overdose deaths is a 
threat to public safety. Attempts to limit the supply of drugs while 
demand remains constant only 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 

The drug war doesn't fight crime; it fuels crime. The governor's task 
force needs to recognize that both drug abuse and enforcement have the 
potential to cause harm. Drug prohibition is part of the problem. In 
addition to giving rise to preventable overdose deaths, rehabilitation 
is confounded. Turnout at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings would be 
dramatically lower if alcoholism were considered a crime rather than a 
medical condition. Eliminating the penalties associated with illicit 
drug use would encourage the type of honest discussion necessary 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. The protective effect of medical marijuana 
grows stronger over time. States with established medical marijuana 
access showed a 33 percent reduction in overdose deaths. 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. The substitution effect was documented by California 
practitioners long before the JAMA research. Access to medical marijuana 
is correlated with a reduction in both opioid and alcohol abuse. The 
marijuana plant is incapable of causing an overdose death. Not even 
aspirin can make the same claim, much less alcohol, heroin or 
prescription narcotics. Policymakers serious about reducing overdose 
deaths have an obligation to pursue marijuana law reform.

The bottom line is Virginia needs to put aside the cultural baggage 
surrounding illicit drugs and prioritize public health. Like it or not, 
drugs are here to stay. Virginia drug policies should strive to 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 in 
Virginia. 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.

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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