Ryan Fowler: New Hampshire casualties of the war on drugs

For the Monitor
Saturday, April 14, 2018

Being in recovery from an opioid use disorder is a blessing. I am alive, healthy, sober and contributing to the world around me. After using opioids for 10 years, I am now living a life I never thought possible. I am now able to use my experiences to help others.

With that blessing comes the reality that I am surrounded by other people who are also living on borrowed time. Sometimes the people I love die. A lot of my friends have evaded death numerous times. Some of us have chosen to stay on the front lines of the addiction crisis to help others. These people help more people in one day than some will help in a lifetime. We have found ourselves on the front lines of an actual war. The reality is that the war on drugs is a war on us.

Every time I hear of a fatal fentanyl overdose, I hear a casualty of the drug war. The proliferation of fentanyl is a direct result of prohibition.

Overdose rates among drug users have more than quadrupled since the start of the war on drugs in 1971. Every time a person with a substance use disorder is locked up, I see a prisoner of war. Substance use disorder is the only mental health condition that is still criminalized. We will not end the stigma of addiction until we end drug prohibition. We are talking about a chronic health condition that is characterized by feelings of isolation. Most professionals agree that to overcome an addiction, one must feel attached to a supportive community. And yet people are put in cages for having an addiction.

As I do the work that I do, the powers that be wage war on the same marginalized population I am trying to help. So that requires rhetoric.

Politicians repeatedly offer my community lip service, and repeat the same mistakes again and again. My community is now being terrorized by Granite Shield, not Granite Hammer. Millions of dollars are being spent spying on and capturing my friends who use drugs, while treatment is still unavailable for many.

Someone in New Hampshire will die every day because treatment is not available for them. To top it off, some state-funded treatment providers in New Hampshire had their funding cut by almost 30 percent this year. Current efforts to “turn the tide” on this crisis have been nothing more than wasteful spending on failed policies. We need a new approach.

Clearly, the winner of the war on drugs is the prison industrial complex. The owners of federally and state contracted jails and prisons are profiting from this crisis at a loss to taxpayers. Disproportionate numbers of poor people and people of color are being locked up for simple drug possession, often to meet contractual detention quotas. These bad deals paved the way for handing out murder convictions for people who share drugs that result in death. These are called “death resulting” cases and have become common over the past year and a half in the Live Free or Die state. Most people who are charged this way are low-level drug users who simply share drugs. These policies help no one and conflict with Good Samaritan laws, keeping people from calling 911 during an overdose event.

As if a felony drug conviction wasn’t enough to ruin a life, now we are spending taxpayer money to incarcerate people for more than 10 years. I understand that when people like me suffer or die, people want someone to blame. But these types of punitive measures do nothing but make the situation worse for everyone. The war on drugs is chaos, not justice. We deserve better than unending vengeance.

What does a new approach look like? Punitive measures clearly aren’t helping anyone. Looking to science, empirical data and successful policy implemented elsewhere, we see that harm reduction approaches are working. Harm reduction involves a compassionate, evidence-based approach of meeting people where they are at and providing supportive services where punishment fails, thereby mitigating the harms of drug use.

Some examples: Opioid agonist therapies like suboxone and methadone are the accepted medical treatment for opioid use disorder. These medications are proven to decrease overdose rates and save lives, but most people in New Hampshire can’t access them in their community. We need legislation to be passed in New Hampshire that would allow emergency rooms to start these medications on site. We also need current medical providers to become certified to prescribe suboxone.

The New Hampshire Legislature passed Senate Bill 234 last year making it legal to operate a syringe service program. Strafford County and Nashua have syringe service programs, but what about the rest of the state? Are you the one who will start the syringe service program in your area?

Once needle exchanges are established, we must implement legal supervised consumption sites. There are more than 100 of these sites worldwide. They are well-researched and evidence-based. These programs are cost-effective and improve the quality of life for everyone in the community by reducing harms associated with unmanaged drug use.

We need legislation that will allow for drug consumption supervision. These fixed or mobile sites provide sterile consumption equipment, reverse overdoses in real time and connect users to treatment and services.

I implore the New Hampshire Legislature to write and pass a bill that would allow people like me to become certified to supervise drug consumption with amnesty from punitive measures.

I know that we want to stop hearing about the drug crises in New Hampshire. Something I learned in early recovery is that if you want different results, you need to try something new. So rather than continuing more than 40 years of failed drug war policies, let’s focus on evidence-based policies and compassion. If we move away from draconian punitive measures, increase access to opioid agonist therapies, expand syringe service programs, increase funding for treatment and allow for supervised consumption sites, I guarantee that we can finally turn the tide on the addiction crisis.

(Ryan Fowler is a member of the N.H. Harm Reduction Coalition. Born and raised in the Seacoast, he now volunteers for Hand Up Health Services, a mobile syringe service program serving Strafford County and the Seacoast. For more info, visit nhhrc.org.)