Editorial: A better way to fight the drug war

Published: 12/10/2017 12:05:10 AM

Locking up 21-year-old Concord resident Spencer Grayson, perhaps for life, will do little to stop the opioid epidemic that last year claimed 485 lives in New Hampshire.

Grayson deserves to be punished for selling the drugs that Ryan Smith injected behind Cumberland Farms on North Main Street, but the $30,000 or more per year it will cost to keep him in prison would do far more good if used to support substance abuse prevention and treatment programs.

Like most low-level drug dealers, Grayson is apparently an addict who sells to support his own habit. He shot up with Smith that day and both men were unconscious when found. That doesn’t excuse the role he played in Smith’s death. Public safety requires removing him from society, but unless real progress is made in the opium war, someone else will take his place and peddle a pleasure that leads to death.

President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions relaunched the war on drugs with calls for tougher laws and longer prison terms, but that approach hasn’t worked in 30 years. It won’t this time either.

More states, and more nations, are finding that the government can’t arrest its way out of the problem. The answer, if there is one, lies in breaking the cycle through education and access to intensive substance abuse treatment both in and out of prison.

Earlier this fall, Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times, spent time in Portugal, which when faced with the problem afflicting New Hampshire and the nation, took the opposite approach. Portugal decriminalized most drugs and deployed legions of outreach workers and substance abuse counselors to work with addicts. They provide methadone to those who want to quit heroin and other opiates, and give clean needles to those not ready to quit. That helps to prevent the spread of AIDS and hepatitis C.

The public health approach didn’t eliminate Portugal’s drug problem, but it didn’t make it worse. Drug use didn’t increase, costs compared to incarceration went down, more addicts were able to hold jobs and far fewer of them overdosed. The overdose rate per million people in Portugal, Kristof reported, is six; the rate in the United States per million is 312.

State and local governments are not about to adopt Portugal’s approach, nor are we advocating that they do so. What we are advocating is that this state’s Legislature, and the federal government, adopt the recommendations of Gov. Chris Sununu’s Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention, Treatment and Recovery. Not one of them calls for tougher drug laws, longer sentences for offenders or a stepped-up law enforcement effort.

The commission is calling for expanded support for prevention, treatment and recovery services, especially those that target young adults, veterans and pregnant women. It recommends the expansion of syringe exchange programs, increased education efforts, more access to mental health treatment and more workplace-based substance abuse programs.

Many, if not all, of the commission’s recommendations hinge on the outcome of the debate over federal health care policies. The Affordable Care Act and expansion of Medicaid made it possible to provide substance abuse treatment to addicts, but the future of both are in doubt.

Some progress is being made, the commission found. There has been a small drop in the need to administer naloxone, the drug that counteracts an otherwise fatal overdose, and the number of drug deaths is expected to decline for the first time in five years.

Waging the war on drugs with public health policies may succeed where 30 years of law enforcement has failed, but it will require a sustained effort.

(Correction: An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly stated that Portugal legalized most drugs. The country decriminalized most drugs.)

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