Ryan Fowler: What has N.H. learned from failed drug war?

For the Monitor
Published: 1/16/2019 12:10:19 AM

A new legislative session comes with new “solutions” to the addiction crisis. More policy will be implemented, more money will be spent and we will continue to dive deeper into the addiction crisis. We fail to learn from the past failures of the war on drugs.

You might ask who I am. Well, I am a person in recovery from a substance use disorder. I used and sold drugs here in New Hampshire for more than 10 years and have been in recovery for four years. A former injection drug user, I am alive and healthy because of harm reduction. I am also a person who was able to access residential treatment and mental health counseling because of Medicaid expansion.

Today, I am a certified recovery support worker, working on the front lines of the addiction crisis throughout the state. I am forever grateful for my recovery and that I have been able to use my negative experiences as a drug user to help others navigate the difficult road of recovery.

I am also an advocate, using my voice to elevate the unheard voices of marginalized populations that live in the shadows of draconian N.H. drug policy. Some call it a war on drugs, but really it is a war on us.

The message I receive from some policy makers: They either want me in a jail cell or dead.

The good news is that we are moving away from failed drug war policies and moving toward an evidence-based compassionate system of care. Our state Legislature has shared in some tremendous victories over the past few years in response to this public health crisis. N.H. lawmakers have come together to ensure that Granite Staters have access to treatment and health care. We have a Good Samaritan law, which allows a person to call 911 for an overdose without fear of prosecution. Today, we still need an amendment to the existing statutes to ensure that drug users are not prosecuted by drug-induced homicide laws. These laws are counterproductive, they ruin additional lives and waste money.

If we move away from these types of failed drug war tactics we will finally see a change in addiction rates. What we are seeing today in our neighborhoods of New Hampshire is a direct result of Richard Nixon’s failed drug war.

Last year in New Hampshire, at least 437 people died a preventable drug-poisoning death, a direct result of stigma and prohibition. With compassion and harm reduction, every drug-related death is preventable.

Our Legislature has started to embrace harm reduction and has passed legislation that has saved countless lives. We have a peer-based naloxone distribution model, which has allowed for countless overdoses to be reversed, saving lives and money. In 2017 we were able to pass some of the best Syringe Services Program laws in the country. With the new legislative session, I implore our elected officials to amend the existing statute to allow for state and federal funds to support syringe exchange programs.

Every drug user in New Hampshire needs access to these evidence-based interventions. More than 25 years of research indicates that Syringe Services Programs save lives and money, and allow people to access peer support, health care and treatment.

We cannot arrest or punish our way out of this crisis. Punishing people for using drugs is based on outdated beliefs that drug use is a moral failing and a choice. Science tells us otherwise. Substance use disorders are treatable chronic health conditions, often rooted in trauma. We currently have a system that criminalizes a mental health condition. My mental health diagnosis is one of the only ones that could land me in prison if I exhibit symptoms.

Lawmakers, please take note: Drug prohibition creates a system of structural violence and mass incarceration that targets marginalized populations. Please, create and adopt policies that promote justice, safety and healing for those most affected by this systemic genocide. Shift power and resources to the people most vulnerable to this type of structural violence.

When our state finally reads the research and legalizes cannabis, the legal market should create a space for those most impacted by the drug war. Post-drug war policy should be rooted in equity and healing.

Prohibition is wasting taxpayer money by filling jails and prisons while those who need help are unable to access services. New Hampshire must say no to failed, overpriced programs like Granite Shield and fund programs that are proven to work. Every N.H. resident is paying the price for failed drug policy; some are paying with their lives.

(Ryan Fowler is a certified recovery support worker with Granite Pathways. This column was adapted from a speech delivered in Concord on Jan. 2 for the launch of the N.H. People’s Platform hosted by Rights & Democracy.)

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