By Kassandra Frederique, Truthout
As COVID-19 continues to rage, another health crisis persists — one that is decades long. In the first year of the pandemic, the United States hit the devastating milestone of 100,000 overdose deaths, a nearly 28.5 percent surge from the record numbers we saw the previous year. Now, fentanyl is the leading cause of death in Americans ages 18-45. The reaction from many of our leaders has been to call for more arrests and criminalization, but this response is rooted in fear, not science. We have spent the last 50 years trying to treat a public health issue with a criminalization response, yet people are dying of overdose at record rates. This response is clearly not working.
The evidence is clear: Criminalization worsens public health outcomes. From making the drug supply more dangerous, to deterring people from getting help out of fear and stigma, to denial of economic opportunities and supports for people with drug arrests, the associated consequences have been dire. Besides, sending someone to jail or prison doesn’t keep people from using drugs. In fact, deaths due to drug and alcohol intoxication have increased more than 600 percent in state prisons between 2001 and 2018.
It’s time for a new approach. Oregon has taken the bold step that we should adopt across the U.S.: Decriminalize drug possession and increase access to health services. In the year since the state decriminalized drugs through a ballot initiative (Measure 110), and with only about 10 percent of the allotted funding distributed to 70 community-based organizations so far, Oregon has already been able to provide peer support, harm reduction, evidence-based treatment, housing and job assistance to more than 16,000 people.