Nearly 2,000 New Yorkers die each year from drug overdose, with heroin and prescription pain medication involved in most of those deaths. Each year, more than 400,000 New Yorkers are in need of drug treatment but don’t receive it.
These are our neighbors, our friends, our co-workers and our family. It’s long past time for New York to give them the help they need, and to reject criminal justice strategies that have incarcerated hundreds of thousands of our citizens and yielded disease, death and broken communities.
Spurred in particular by the rapid, statewide increase in overdose deaths — now the leading cause of accidental death — lawmakers have given welcome attention to painkiller and heroin use, with numerous legislative proposals unveiled over the course of the current session. In responding to this problem, legislators should focus on proven public health solutions and be careful not to repeat mistakes.
Over the past few months, the Senate Majority Coalition Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction and the Assembly Joint Committees gathered testimonies and insights from hundreds of participants representing treatment providers, family members, law enforcement, doctors, educators and others.
Having participated in several of the convenings ourselves, we heard people again and again asking for help, for proven solutions to protect their loved ones and their communities. We heard treatment providers talk about the barriers to providing care and law enforcement officials strongly advocating for health-based interventions. Everyone, including law enforcement, agreed: We cannot arrest our way out of this problem.
Such testimony, summarized in the Senate Task Force’s final report, is not surprising to anyone who has worked with those struggling with addiction, witnessed or experienced the devastating effects of stigma, or wrestled to update and repair our state’s highly punitive drug laws.
The Senate passed a package of more than 20 bills meant to address increasing heroin and painkiller use and addiction. Legislation that would increase access to voluntary drug treatment and promote other health-based approaches signal a positive shift in how lawmakers are approaching drug policy. But much of the old way of addressing these issues remains: the majority of the bills in the package increase criminal penalties or create new crimes. As noted by health experts and law enforcement officials alike, rising opioid dependency and overdose is a public health problem that must be treated with public health solutions. People need help, not to be punished and stigmatized. Solutions should focus on prevention, treatment and harm reduction, not the failed “lock ’em up” strategies of the war on drugs.
The problems facing New York with regard to heroin, overdose and addiction are serious, and we should respond with evidence-based interventions that we know work to improve the health of individuals, families and the community. We are working with community health care, civil rights and drug policy reform organizations to urge the Legislature toward a coordinated public health approach to drug policy that will enable New York to address changes in drug use, reduce overdose, HIV and hepatitis transmission, and other harms, and ensure that no one is denied access to care and treatment.
Such an approach breaks from current criminalization-driven strategies that perversely make addiction the only health condition that people are routinely sent to prison for having. Instead, we should promote integration and care coordination between health care, drug treatment, and harm reduction services; expand harm reduction services such as syringe exchange and overdose prevention; increase access and availability of high quality, evidence-based drug treatment services; reform criminal justice policies that are overly punitive and stigmatizing; and expand drug prevention and education that addresses the real harms of drug use without sensationalizing the issue or lying to our children.
Through community engagement and health advocacy efforts to unite the experiences of communities at the grass roots with the best scientific evidence, we can chart a course toward drug policies that will end the current crisis and truly build a healthier, safer New York.
Tracy Pugh is a policy coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance’s New York policy office; Matt Curtis is the policy director for VOCAL-NY.