Drug laws evolving with times
I follow NBA basketball pretty closely, and a couple of weeks ago I watched the 2009 documentary “Without Bias,” about the 1986 death of college basketball star Len Bias from a cocaine overdose.
I found the story of Bias’ life involving enough, but what really interested me was the final third of the film, which focused on the impact of Bias’ death.
Much like actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death from a heroin overdose earlier this year, Bias’ fatal overdose awakened people to the risks of cocaine use and spurred politicians into action. Congress passed tough new drug laws, including mandatory minimum sentences and felony charges for people caught possessing even small amounts of cocaine — in either the powder or rock form.
These laws were well-intentioned, but not necessarily good policy. Over the past three decades, the U.S. prison population has exploded. More than half of federal prisoners are serving lengthy sentences for a drug crime, and many of them are nonviolent, low-level offenders.
If this overly punitive approach had won the war on drugs, perhaps it would have been worth it. But millions of Americans continue to use and abuse illegal drugs. Might there be a better way to address this problem than arresting people and throwing them in jail?
In recent months, we’ve heard a lot about the heroin and prescription painkiller epidemic sweeping New York, as well as the rest of the country. Law enforcement officials, doctors and other experts have testified to the rising abuse of both heroin and prescription painkillers and the increase in overdoses and deaths. Families have described the heartbreak of watching relatives struggle with addiction, and the struggle to obtain treatment. I have talked to the parents of heroin-addicted children, and their grief is palpable.
I don’t doubt these people are telling the truth, or that the abuse of heroin and prescription painkillers is a serious concern. But I do sometimes worry that this perfectly legitimate concern will lead to more well-intentioned but poorly thought-out drug laws.
And when I learned that last week the state Legislature passed a package of bills to combat heroin and prescription drug abuse, I was curious. Had lawmakers overreacted to reports of a new drug epidemic by enacting overly harsh new laws? Or had they taken a smarter approach? I also wondered whether new laws were necessary. Aren’t there already plenty of drug laws on the books?
After taking a look at the package of bills passed by the Legislature, I’m encouraged. Unlike the stiff anti-drug legislation of yesteryear, these new laws take a more holistic approach to drug use. They emphasize treatment and access to recovery services — something families of addicts have been calling for.
Among other things, the legislation aims to improve and expand insurance coverage treatment, which is a step in the right direction, although it does raise valid concerns about cost, as treatment can be expensive. Another bill will create a new model of care designed to divert patients who do not need to be hospitalized to the appropriate services and facilities.
Also included in the package of bills are new penalties to crack down on illegal drug distribution. One new law, called “fraud and deceit related to controlled substances,” is designed to crack down on “doctor shopping” — the practice of trying to obtain prescription painkillers using a forged prescription or some other misrepresentation.
As someone who is wary of new drug laws, I’m not particularly excited about the new penalties, but they don’t strike me as particularly awful, either. And if including some tough-on-crime measures was necessary to obtain the votes needed to expand treatment access, so be it.
Cuomo has also added 100 investigators to the state police Community Narcotics Enforcement Team and taken steps to make naxolone — an overdose antidote that is highly effective — available to all first responder units. This last measure could save more than a few lives.
One thing to keep in mind as state and federal efforts to address heroin and prescription painkiller abuse ramp up is that the overall rate of heroin use is still fairly low. According to the most recent federal survey of drug use in the U.S., 0.3 percent of Americans ages 12 and older reported using heroin in 2012, up slightly from 0.2 percent in 2004. By comparison, 12.1 percent of Americans ages 12 and older used marijuana in 2012, 1.8 percent used cocaine and 4.8 percent abused prescription pain relievers.
I’m not including these numbers because I want to downplay the dangers posed by heroin — after all, people are dying — but because I want people to keep the problem in perspective.
There should be a way to help the subset of people who need help without repeating the mistakes and failures of the War on Drugs.