Drug Addiction Is A Public Health Problem

So why do we keep trying to arrest our way out of it? An alternate approach is the topic of Nicholas Kristof’s column in the Sunday New York Times: “Seattle has figured out how to end the war on drugs.”

The war on drugs has been one of America’s most grievous mistakes, resulting in as many citizens with arrest records as with college diplomas. At last count, an American was arrested for drug possession every 25 seconds, yet the mass incarceration this leads to has not turned the tide on narcotics.

Meanwhile, Governor Gina Raimondo was taking a giant step backwards when last year she put her name to Kristen’s Law which allows life sentences for people who sell illegal drugs that lead to fatal overdoses. (This was all at the urging of our former attorney general, Peter Kilmartin, who is now thankfully gone.)

And yet not long before that, the Governor had re-enacted the Good Samaritan Act of 2016, reinstating and expanding important legal protections for those who seek medical assistance for individuals experiencing a drug overdose!

“Drug overdose is a public health crisis that cuts across every community in Rhode Island,” said Raimondo. “I applaud the General Assembly for passing these bills quickly. Their focus reflects my top priority on this issue: Save lives. By removing barriers to contacting emergency services during overdose situations, this law is an important part of our efforts to reduce opioid overdose deaths and help more people make it in Rhode Island.”

According to the ProJo the Governor tried to justify this incongruous behavior by explaining how carefully and narrow the new legislation had been worded.

“The version that the Governor signed today is narrowly tailored, gives judges discretion in sentencing, does not include mandatory minimum sentences, and only targets drug dealers who are profiting on a public health crisis,″ said a late-day statement issued by the governor’s office.

Or perhaps neither the general assembly nor the governor had the political courage to give proper weight to the testimony of professionals in the field like the ACLU, the Substance Use Policy, Education and Recovery PAC, Protect Families First, and Preventing Overdose and Naloxone Intervention (PONI) an organization run through Miriam Hospital. It is difficult saying no to a grieving mother, but we need elected officials who can make those tough decisions.

Last July a letter was sent from Annajane Yolken, executive director of Protect Families First (partially reprinted in the ProJo) to Providence Commissioner of Public Safety Steven Pare and other city officials asking that the Providence Police immediately halt their investigations of recent drug overdose deaths as homicides;

In the past month, at least seven Rhode Islanders have tragically died from overdoses in the city of Providence. These deaths highlight the need to address this epidemic as the public health crisis that it is in order to make progress in saving lives. Regrettably, the Providence Police Department openly and immediately cited last year’s strongly opposed – but ultimately enacted – drug-induced homicide bill known as “Kristen’s Law” to investigate these deaths as murders.

I would suggest* that rather than counting on this discretion, Kristen’s Law should be repealed. Decades of experience have shown that the discretion of law enforcement has led to the drug laws being used disproportionately against people of color.

PONI Director Michelle McKenzie explains,

“During testimony about ‘Kristen’s Law,’ law enforcement insisted that this tool would be used sparingly, to go after for drug kingpins. However, the Providence Police Department’s immediate invocation of the law only confirms the fears of those of us who worried about its broader use which could further criminalize and marginalize people who have a medical condition.”

Let’s repeal Kristen’s Law and take a long look at the Seattle program. From Kristof;

This model is becoming the consensus preference among public health experts in the U.S. and abroad. Still, it shocks many Americans to see no criminal penalty for using drugs illegally, so it takes courage and vision to adopt this approach: a partial retreat in the war on drugs coupled with a stepped-up campaign against addiction.

*I am a former Providence patrol officer and a speaker for Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a non-profit group of former law enforcement officers, chiefs of police, prosecutors, judges, and prison officials who support drug policy and criminal justice reforms that will make communities safer by focusing law enforcement resources on the greatest threats to public safety, promoting alternatives to arrest and incarceration, addressing the root causes of crime, and working toward healing police-community relations.



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