The Justice Department Needs to Take Another Look at its Tactics to Tackle the Opioid Crisis

It’s a crisis that has landed on the doorstep of many American households; the opioid crisis claims tens of thousands of American lives each year. The number continues to grow, despite law enforcement efforts and while the Trump administration has declared it a public-health emergency. But, according to a recent article by The Nation, the Justice Department isn’t putting its best foot forward amid these massive overdoses.

Justice Department Approach

Prescription medications are a big part of the problem, but so are street drugs like heroin and illegally produced synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. The Nation says, Attorney General Jeff Sessions made it clear that the Justice Department will prosecute anyone possessing, selling, manufacturing, or importing a substance containing fentanyl. He also wants these people facing higher penalties than heroin users and dealers. This approach will probably send more people to prison, but, as the article points out, more prosecutions of people who use drugs will not curb overdose deaths.

The Nation looks to our history of a long waging war on drugs to draw conclusions. It says that someone is arrested every 25 seconds in the United States for possessing drugs for personal use. These stats have not driven overdoses down. Instead, the mass criminalization of personal drug use and possession has ravaged families and communities. Approaches that punish the user have not reduced drug use.

The Alternatives

The article offers a few public-health-based suggestions, its authors wish the Justice Department would follow. It says that these interventions are known to work, but face legal hurdles and lack government support.

The Nation says the government should encourage law-enforcement agencies to carry naloxone. Naloxone is a safe, generic medication that can save a person suffering an opioid overdose. The article cites a study that estimated that one life is saved for every 164 naloxone kits. In the rural areas of our country, police are often the first responders and should be armed to administer aid.

They point out that Trump’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Epidemic recommended the administration should mandate that every law-enforcement agency in the country be equipped with naloxone. The commission also wants Congress to fund it. For their part, the Justice Department can make sure local agencies have the tools, training, and support to carry out this recommendation.

The Nation also suggests the Justice Department help states strengthen “Good Samaritan” laws. The president’s own commission noted that these laws protect people who call emergency services in an overdose situation from arrest or prosecution related to drug use and possession.

In other words, you are safe to save a life—even if you are a drug user.

Right now, most states now have some form of Good Samaritan law, however, most of the public are not aware they exist. Fear of being arrested keep people from calling 911. And 10 states do not offer any protection to people who could help during the first moments of an overdose. If the Justice Department could endorse the laws, it would go a long way to helping save lives.

The article also suggests that the Justice Department also support a pilot project for supervised-injection facilities. This one is pretty controversial but has proven effective. Supervised-injection facilities are medically and legally OK’d spaces designed to reduce harm from drug use. Because of the threat of arrest, many people use drugs on the street, in cars, in abandoned buildings, and often alone. All of these places make their risk of overdoses much higher.

The Nation says that at supervised-injection facilities, staff provide clean needles and equipment as well as testing for HIV and Hepatitis C. Currently, there are 66 of these facilities in nine countries. Evidence shows they significantly reduce the transmission of infectious disease and overdose deaths without increasing drug use.

The article says the Justice Department could support a pilot project in at least one city. 6 cities are considering supervised injection sites, DOJ support could remove legal barriers.

Jeffrey A. Newman represents whistleblowers