Drug issue requires state’s help

Published 8:01 am Friday, September 9, 2016

Anyone who’s been keeping up with the news this past month understands that there is a serious drug problem at our door and it will probably only get worse.

Last week, The Advocate reported that in the New Orleans area, widespread mixing of fentanyl with heroin has led to a marked increase in drug deaths. In the first six months this year, 26 people have died from fentanyl overdoses.

Two weeks ago, the online health magazine, statnews.com, reported from a town in West Virginia where 26 people overdosed within a three-and-a-half hour period. Once again, many of those overdoses were tied to fentanyl-laced heroin. Fentanyl is about 50 times more deadly than heroin, and it is mixed in heroin to thin the drug and as a cheap way to make the high more powerful.

Then, last Friday, NPR reported there’s a new drug of choice for heroin distributors — carfentanil. And carfentanil is 100 times more potent than fentanyl.  So far, NPR reports, carfentanil is apparently limited to the Midwest, but since it emerged in July, its presence has been acutely noted.

The story quotes Tom Synan, the director of the Hamilton County Heroin Coalition Task Force, who says the overdoses went from four or five a day to 40 or 50 a day. As a result, Ohio has declared a public health emergency.

Aside from the personal tragedies of drug overdoses, a health emergency of this magnitude will strain on our health and public safety resources and therefore it requires government intervention.

I was happy to report last week on the possibility that our parish and local law enforcement will partner with New Orleans Mission to offer a free drug treatment program for anyone who wants to get off drugs. But this is a local stab at a nation-wide problem. It will help, yes, but it’s not a solution.

Therefore, before our state representatives re-convene next year, our health department should begin looking at what other states and countries are doing to curb drug use. Personally, I suspect the states and countries that reduce the emphasis on criminal justice and instead focus on public health will find a reduction in drug use.

This is due to a variety of reasons, including the fact that as more money is spent on medical treatment for addiction, more people get treatment. In 2001, Portugal famously decriminalized all drugs, meaning the penalty for drug possession would be either a small fine or drug treatment. This was in the face of a national heroin epidemic. In 1999, officials there estimated a whole 1 percent of the population was addicted to heroin and its drug war was failing. So, the country shifted the emphasis of its fight away from criminal justice and onto public health and offered wide-open access to drug treatment. As a result, drug deaths have decreased, as has the rate of drug use.

I realize such a bold move is not politically realistic in this state. But there is political reality and there is just plain reality, and it is plainly real that opioid addiction is a medical issue. Pretending we can cure illness inside a jail cell might be an easy political move, but it’s morally cruel, fiscally wasteful and utterly ignorant.

Jesse Wright is the managing editor of The Daily News. You can email him at jesse.wright@bogalusadailynews.com or call him at 985-732-2565, ext. 301.