Yesterday, Congress took a major step toward bringing the United States in line with the prevailing global attitude concerning addiction. By a wide majority, the Senate approved a bill that contains everything from funding, to treatment guidelines, to research infrastructure aimed at combating and better understanding opioid addiction. The bill budgets about half a billion dollars toward the cause, which unfortunately is only about half the amount initially requested. However, there’s no question that even in its under-funded state, this bill will do a world of good for potentially hundreds of thousands of citizens.
Yes, this bill includes several tangible, actionable things to help opioid addicts heal and shed their addictions. However, there is another and potentially more profound change that this bill is helping to bring about. By reshaping the law surrounding how police and other law enforcement are mandated to deal with opioid addicts (i.e. sending them to treatment instead of jail), this bill is fundamentally changing the conversation around addiction. For far too long, America has treated drug abuse and addiction as a criminal issue to be met with punitive measures and stigma. But now, that attitude is being reframed in part by bills like this one, which seek to reclassify opioid addiction as a public health issue rather than a legal one.
The shift in perception from criminality to health crisis will undoubtedly benefit opioid addicts over the long term. Studies have repeatedly shown that treatment, not punishment, is the way to reform substance abuse. Our prisons are overcrowded, filled to the brim with nonviolent offenders whose only crime was succumbing to the biological imbalance created in their brains by an impossibly addictive substance.
One of the major victories that this bill brings about is the increased availability of naloxone, an important drug that is used to reverse an opioid overdose and save lives. Currently, naloxone is primarily found in hospitals and in the toolkits of first responders like paramedics. With the changes implemented by this bill, community centers and other outreach programs will have access to naloxone, a decision that will unquestionably save lives in the future.
In addition to these new treatment options, the bill also has an eye toward reducing the opiate problem in the future. Task forces are being created to study difficult topics such as pain management, how to best monitor prescription drug usage and prescribing habits, and more.
Finally, this bill appears to be one of the final nails in the coffin of the “War on Drugs,” a relic of the past 30 years that fundamentally misunderstood the nature of addiction and brain chemistry. The “War on Drugs” has left in its wake an unspeakably devastating path of unnecessary criminality, ruined lives, prisons bursting at the seams, and wasted public funds. It’s encouraging to see that, with bills like this one passing, our legislature is finally and quietly realizing that we must shift strategies to help, not hurt, the estimated 2 million opioid addicts in our country.