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News-Sentinel.com Your Town. Your Voice.

The needle and the damage done

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press
Monday, January 30, 2017 01:45 pm

It was fairly surprising to me to see Republican Gov. Mike Pence approve of letting counties, by seeking special permission, initiate a needle exchange program to try to get a handle on the spread of diseases such as hepatitis and HIV among intravenous drug users. Then I was almost astonished when Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb said he wants to give all counties the authority to do it on their own if they so choose. The argument from Republicans has always been that such programs would encourage further drug use, because it would seem to give the state's imprimatur. (The same arguments are used against providing rides to drunk teens on prom night.) But I see where Attorney General Curtis Hill thinks the current needle exchange program  has "evolved into a needle giveaway," so he's certainly not going to favor an expansion of it. Guess we're going to have us a good, old-fashioned fight along the familiar contours.One of the arguments against needle exchanges was never that they could lead to even more lenient programs to replace the law-and-order approach, or at least supplement it, with a more compassionate. Obviously we should have. Seattle, bless its heart, is showing us the next logical step down that path: 

Officials in Seattle on Friday approved the nation’s first "safe-injection" sites for users of heroin and other illegal drugs, calling the move a drastic but necessary response to an epidemic of addiction that is claiming tens of thousands of lives each year.

The sites — which offer addicts clean needles, medical supervision and quick access to drugs that reverse the effects of an overdose — have long been popular in Europe. Now, with the U.S. death toll rising, the idea is gaining traction in a number of American cities, including Boston, New York City and Ithaca, N.Y.

While opponents say the sites promote illegal drug use, supporters say they can keep people alive and steer them toward treatment. They compare supervised injection facilities to the needle exchanges that became popular in the 1980s and 1990s as a way to stanch the spread of HIV and hepatitis C among intravenous drug users.

Whew! Talk about the state sending an approving signal. "Yes, these drugs are still illegal, but come on down and use them in our presence, and we won't do a thing to you We'll even help you get high in a safer way." There is also the fact that such sites are currently not legal under federal law. A provision of the Controlled Substances Act makes it illegal to operate facilities where drugs are used. The Obama administration sent a signal that it didn't mind states approving of marijuana, with the result that we have a bunch of people doing something that is lawful at the state level but illegal at the federal level. I doubt if the Trump administration will have the same attitude.

The only thing that can come next is for the state to sell the heroin and other drugs itself and use some of the profits to provide the clean needles and medical supervision and all the rest. That's the way it already handles the vice of gambling. No reason it shouldn't handle the vice of drugs that way. 

OK, that's silly. But what about treating these drugs the same way the state treats alcohol? The are legal to use, but the state keeps tight control over who can sell when and where and under what circumstances.they are sold, and they are taxed, and there will be severe penalties for putting them in the hands of children.

I'm not recommending this, understand. The only way such an approach can possibly work is that we are absolutely ruthless in holding people responsible when they abuse the drugs and harm others as a result. I don't know that we have that in us as a society any more.

But I think it's time we start at least talking about it. There is no logical reason to have two substances that both have the effect of altering  perception and letting people escape reality, have the potential for harm, and are desired by a great many people, and treat them differently. Strictly prohibit them both or control and tax both.

The War on Drugs over the decades has wasted billions of dollars without creating any noticeable progress. It's time to admit that and look for other answers.

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