A man walks down a street in St. Johnsbury, a town which has a high rate of heroin users, on Feb. 6, 2014 in St. Johnsbury, Vermont.
Spencer Platt/Getty

How to fight the heroin epidemic

Updated

Earlier this month, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called heroin an affliction on the nation. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont democrat who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said he plans to hold a hearing focusing on law enforcement responses to the growing heroin epidemic in his home state. Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin recently devoted the entirety of his State of the State address to highlight the heroin crisis. He called it “a crisis bubbling just beneath the surface that may be invisible to many, but is already highly visible to law enforcement, medical personnel, social service and addiction treatment providers, and too many Vermont families.” 

These lawmakers are shrewd to remain vigilant about the resurgence in drug abuse and drug crime. According to the DEA, heroin-related deaths are increasing across our country for a variety of reasons: higher heroin purity, exposure at a younger age, and new laws rightly restricting the availability of prescription opioids that some addicts previously depended on.

We have been through this before as a nation – during the crack epidemic of the late ’80s and early ’90s, and the previous heroin crisis of the ’70s – and we have valuable lessons to draw upon when approaching today’s challenge.

One lesson is that the reactionary “tough on crime” rhetoric led us astray. It resulted in policymakers enacting ineffective and overly punitive drug policies, many of which resulted from knee-jerk reactions to media sensationalism of crime or political opportunism.

Today, almost half of all federal inmates are in prison for drug crimes and 1 in 5 state prisoners are serving sentences for drug crimes. They are part of the world’s largest and most expensive prison population, which since 1980 has increased by more than 800%. In the last 40 years, federal and state governments have spent more than $1 trillion on the “war on drugs.”

What we now know is that drug use should be treated as a public health issue, rather than just a criminal justice issue. It’s easy to let political self-interest lead policymakers to enact harsh, punitive policies following high profile events like the recent heroin-related death of Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman.It’s also clear that simply incarcerating drug users doesn’t work.

Research by the Justice Department shows two-thirds of drug offenders leaving state prison will be re-arrested within three years. In addition, nearly half of released drug offenders will return to prison.

Each prisoner costs taxpayers an average of $30,000 a year, money that could be better spent on drug treatment programs with a stronger record of success. Studies have found that every dollar invested in drug treatment saves taxpayers more than $18.00 in crime-related societal costs, and that treatment reduces crime, recidivism and other societal costs 15 times more effectively than law enforcement alone.

The Obama administration has acknowledged this truth. Last April, drug czar Gil Kerlikowske said that his office would support a broad effort to make health care a larger part of the solution to drug issues. “We’ve relied far too long on the criminal justice system.” Despite the administration’s stated commitment, however, Obama’s budget and his drug policies continue to focus on drug enforcement.

The administration must make a stronger effort to prioritize treatment programs as a solution to drug crises, including the current heroin epidemic. In addition, Congress should continue its efforts, through legislation like the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act, to reduce the use of draconian mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders. These policies perpetuate the worst aspects of the drug war by locking up low-level drug offenders for long periods, possibly the least efficient use of taxpayer money to combat drug use.

As illegal drug use again becomes a focus of public policy, it is vital that we don’t make the same mistakes that created mass incarceration in America. Decades of experience have given us the tools to do better. It is incumbent on policymakers, from the White House to state legislatures, to apply these lessons.

Lauren-Brooke Eisen is Counsel in the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.

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How to fight the heroin epidemic

Updated