MORE PEOPLE are killed now by drug overdoses than by homicides in many states, prompting alarmed state lawmakers and attorneys general to search for legislative fixes. The sense of urgency, impelled especially by a spike in lethal heroin overdoses, is justified. Some of the measures proposed to address the problem may not be.
The new focus on heroin use coincides with very sharp increases nationally in overdose deaths in middle-class and predominantly white communities. It’s a shame that that’s what it took to rally the authorities to action; still, better late than never.
About 20 states, including Maryland, and the District have enacted bills to ensure that first-responders carry naloxone, a prescription drug also known by the brand name Narcan, which can save the lives of opiate users who have overdosed. Unfortunately, the spike in demand for the antidote has driven up its cost, which is proving a burden for some states and localities. Nonetheless, more states need to step up and recognize heroin use as a public health emergency.
Virginia is a case in point. Heroin-related deaths more than doubled in the commonwealth from 2011 to 2013 and increased at an even faster rate in Northern Virginia. Yet no law requires emergency medical personnel to carry Narcan; some do and some don’t. Worse, some lawmakers apparently believe that making the antidote more accessible will encourage heroin addiction, as if the availability of treatment somehow enables disease.
There are other sensible steps that states can take. They include enacting so-called good Samaritan laws (in place in Maryland and the District but not yet in Virginia) that shield witnesses from prosecution — even if they abuse or sell drugs themselves — if they promptly report and help overdose victims.
States should also consider measures that crack down on unscrupulous doctors and pharmacists who illegally or inappropriately prescribe and dispense opiate pills like OxyContin, which can be a gateway to heroin . And it’s also worth tracking the results of legislation adopted in New York that allows addicts to remain in treatment programs while they appeal decisions by insurance companies that have denied coverage.
However, we are skeptical that some measures to further criminalize already illegal drugs such as heroin will be effective. One idea, pushed by some prosecutors, is to expose drug dealers to homicide charges if they sell what turns out to be a lethal overdose. The experience of the federal war on drugs suggests that harsher penalties fill up jails and prisons without doing much to extinguish the sale of illegal narcotics.
A wiser tack is to treat heroin addiction as a public health emergency. That means establishing more readily available long-term treatment programs, preferably in residential settings that can help shield users from dealers. Such programs cost money. That in itself will be a test for leaders like Maryland Gov.-elect Larry Hogan (R), who has rightly proclaimed that the spike in heroin overdoses is an emergency. In the face of Mr. Hogan’s promise to slash state spending, will he be able to fulfill his promise to come to grips with this epidemic?
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