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Illustration by Leisha Chambers

Elliott Greene
Opinion Columnist

By the time you finish reading this paper, someone in the United States will have died of a drug overdose. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports more deaths by overdose than firearms and car crashes combined.

While psychoactives have been a part of society since prehistory, the past two decades have seen an unprecedented surge in fatalities related to drug use. The past five years show an acceleration with opioid deaths leading the charts.

Calls for legislative action to combat these deaths grow by the day as communities nationwide feel the economic and personal burden of their neighbors and families succumbing to drug abuse. Despite this, government response has been lackluster.

Since the Nixon era, federal response to drug crises has been punitive. Despite criticism for disproportionately targeting minority communities, criminalization of narcotics remains a mainstay of American drug policy.

Alternative strategy focused on rehabilitation and support see little support in the U.S. While countries like Portugal demonstrate how decriminalization can reduce death rates and disease transfer, the U.S. refuses to embrace progressive policies.

Unfortunately, drug use under this punitive system has grown into a bigger problem than it was at the start. Programs shown to improve public health, like needle shares and safe injection sites, face resistance from conservatives, exacerbating the issue.

Even if one accepts American drug laws have been appropriate historically, clear evidence exists of their modern ineffectiveness. Over prescription of opioids for chronic pain at the turn of the century created a new type of drug addict.

Policies encouraging abstinence and punishing those who partake could work in a time when first exposure to drugs was always illegal. In the modern era, addicts get their first hit from a pharmacist.

Modern drug addicts develop their addiction from prescribed pain treatments. Once the script runs out, addiction forces seeking of deadlier highs. “Just Say NO!” loses effect when the dealer has an M.D. and the future addict has a broken leg.

This runs counter to drug laws that assume drug addicts are willing criminals, and the disconnect shows. This philosophy stems from perception of drugs being linked to poor and minority communities, despite evidence to the contrary.

The opioid epidemic, comparatively, refuses to be tied to any one demographic. New paths to addiction mean the abuse has overtaken middle-class and white communities in mass, while the inability to ignore or imprison the problem leaves politicians unsure how to proceed.

Easy answers rarely present in public policy, and the same applies here. While a solution may be hard to find, understanding the failings of current approaches are easy. This makes it quite disheartening when politicians double-down on bad ideas.

Vice President Mike Pence rejected evidence-based policies by shutting down needle shares when he was governor. This resulted in an HIV crisis in Indiana. Rural American towns faced HIV rates unseen outside of the Third World. Pence eventually conceded and reopened some needle shares.

Clearly, the obvious failings of American drug policy failed to register with Pence. Now that he has ascended to higher office, we can only hope he and his colleagues have learned to approach the issue with open minds, but all evidence points to the current administration being woefully unprepared for the current crisis.

Elliott Greene can be reached at

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