Embracing Taboo Ideas to Overcome Drug Overdose Deaths
November 22, 2021

by Editorial Board (Washington Post)

Nearly 100,000. “Every time I say or read that number, it shocks me again,” Stanford University addiction researcher Keith Humphreys said of the U.S. death toll from drug overdoses between March 2020 and March 2021. The number, 30 percent more than the previous 12-month period, is a record high — and yes, it should be shocking. Good then that the Biden administration is taking steps to ease a crisis that is shattering families and communities.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra has rolled out a four-part plan that includes measures to prevent drug addiction by cracking down on inappropriate prescribing of opioids and to curb drug overdoses by emphasizing harm reduction techniques. These include federal support for distribution of clean syringes and test strips to check street drugs for hidden fentanyl. “We are willing to go places where our opinions and our tendencies have not allowed us to go [before],” Mr. Becerra said in an interview with NPR of the decision to embrace policies that in the past have been met with resistance.

Providing such support to drug users has been criticized as enabling and encouraging use of illegal narcotics. But data from programs operated by nonprofit and grass-roots groups in the United States and those in other parts of the world suggest harm reduction strategies are effective in lowering death rates and transmission of disease. The administration is right to treat addicts less like criminals and more like people in need of treatment. “Their logic is the right logic,” Mr. Humphreys told NPR. “It’s what you do when you have an epidemic of addiction. You try to keep people from becoming addicted, you try to keep alive the people you can’t treat, and you try to get them into recovery.”

In the interview with NPR, Mr. Becerra initially suggested his agency might be open to the creation of overdose prevention sites where people can use illegal drugs under the supervision of trained staff who can offer counseling and intervene in the event of an overdose. But the department later walked back the comment because the Justice Department is involved in litigation over the legality of such sites. That’s unfortunate: Such facilities have long operated in Canada and Europe and have been credited with saving thousands of lives. They should not be ruled out as a possible tool.

The effectiveness of the plan outlined by Mr. Becerra — which also includes greater access to drug treatment — will depend upon Congress’s willingness to provide adequate funding: The plan is accompanied by a request for $11.2 billion. But it is encouraging that the opioid crisis, lately both aggravated by and overshadowed by the coronavirus epidemic, is getting attention that hopefully will result in meaningful action.

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