Pubdate: Fri, 11 Aug 2017
Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (WI)
Copyright: 2017 Journal Sentinel Inc.
Author: Emily Mills


I grew up in the 1980s, back when the "Just Say No" campaign was in
full swing. I remember being prepared to fend off relentless peer
pressure to do drugs, evil strangers offering what was not actually
candy, and so forth. Then I grew up, and almost none of the scenarios
I'd been taught in D.A.R.E. ever really came to pass.

I still avoided drugs, mostly because of a combination of a good home
life and an over-analytical brain. It wasn't as if drugs weren't
around, though. I watched too many of my friends experiment with
everything from speed to acid. No one ever pressured me to try it. It
was simply there if you wanted to dive in.

As time has gone by, I've known and loved many people who've struggled
with drug dependencies. I've come to understand that drug abuse is not
a simple matter of criminality or a moral failure on the part of the
user. It's a deeply complex health issue that is inextricably tied to
everything from socioeconomic status and environment to
institutionalized discrimination and neglect.

We don't do a very good job of treating it as such in this country,
though. The 1980s also saw the full terror of the so-called war on
drugs, declared by Richard Nixon but truly brought to bear by Ronald
Reagan's "tough on crime" (and incredibly discriminatory) mandatory
minimums, and Bill Clinton's tougher sentencing laws and attacks on
inmates' legal defense rights. It's a war that has cost countless
lives and billions of dollars, ripped apart families, and enforced
racial and class disparities. All this, and it still utterly failed at
its core mission.

Why? Because approaching what is a medical and social problem as a
simple matter of crime and punishment is a sure-fire way to make
things worse. It pits police against the communities they're supposed
to protect and serve by militarizing them and basing their funding off
property seizures of alleged dealers. It throws people into an
overcrowded and often violent prison system who have legitimate mental
and physical health issues. Once released, it stigmatizes and makes
incorporation back into society nearly impossible.

We had been on a path toward a major rethinking of our approach to the
issue, with government officials finally advocating for less prison
time and more treatment programs. Early in 2016, President Barack
Obama began pardoning and otherwise shortening the prison sentences of
hundreds of federal inmates. When it came to the opioid epidemic,
Obama signed a bill that put $1 billion toward combating the problem
via a public health, not criminal justice, model.

I'm glad President Donald Trump has decided to acknowledge the
seriousness of that epidemic, declaring it a national health emergency
and vowing to dedicate far more attention and money to combat its
effects. In doing so, it clears the way for faster action at the state
and local levels. It also may allow the government to deploy the U.S.
Public Health Service to offer direct help in places with little to no
access to medical care or drug treatment.

With an estimated 2.6 million opioid addicts in the United States, and
deaths from opioid overdose exceeding 59,000 last year (made worse by
the introduction of fentanyl and similar drugs used to cut heroin and
cocaine, and which recently caused the sudden death of a friend), it's
far past time for us to get serious about addressing the root causes
as well as the symptoms of the disease.

Recent signaling from the Trump Department of Justice is cause for
concern, though. Attorney General Jeff Sessions seems determined to
undo any recent progress and throw us right back into the "tough on
crime" dark ages. It would fly in the face of growing bipartisan
consensus that the war on drugs has not worked.

Let us hope, then, that this declaration by the president will at
least allow those people and organizations that are on the ground and
can deal with this serious issue in a more holistic, humane, and
realistic manner to operate more freely and effectively. If we want to
save lives, the war on drugs must die first.

Emily Mills is a freelance writer who lives in Madison.
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