Biden’s new drug control strategy: Long overdue focus on harm reduction and other takeaways

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Biden’s new drug control strategy: Long overdue focus on harm reduction and other takeaways

5 May 2022

By John Walsh/WOLA

The Biden administration’s first full-fledged national drug control strategy was released today with the country in the midst of a drug overdose crisis of unprecedented severity, with more than 106,000 fatalities in the past 12 months alone.

The 152-page document, which was submitted to Congress, details the administration’s proposals to address the nation’s drug problems by enhancing drug treatment, investing in harm reduction, tackling drug trafficking, and improving data collection and evaluation.

Below are five initial takeaways from President Biden’s first drug control strategy:

An overdue start on modernizing U.S. drug policies to support public health

The strategy released today makes a start on that response, especially by focusing on ensuring access to treatment for substance use disorders and highlighting the crucial role of harm reduction services. Even so, when measured against the scale of the nation’s overdose problems and the urgency of the needs, Biden’s new plan appears quite timid.

The first U.S. strategy to include a chapter on harm reduction

The plan’s recognition and adoption of syringe service programs (SSPs) is an especially significant step as part of the administration’s strategy for U.S. drug policy. As the strategy notes, SSPs and other harm reduction services “will save lives, improve health, and likely have a favorable economic benefit to society.”

Noteworthy advances risk being undercut by the continuation of approaches that have already failed

The Biden plan’s positive innovations regarding investment in treatment and harm reduction strategies risk being undermined by a continued commitment to the kinds of policies that have exacerbated the present crisis and that continue to absorb the lion’s share of resources, namely, drug criminalization at home and wildly exaggerated expectations for what can be achieved through supply control efforts abroad.

Highlights targeting financial profits to disrupt international drug trafficking

Prioritizing enforcement that focuses on the profits that flow to the higher echelons of trafficking networks makes more sense than attacking the subsistence livelihoods of farmers. Still, expectations for the kind of impact that can be achieved by targeting finances and profits should be tempered.

The stark limits of what can be achieved through supply control under the prevailing prohibitionist framework underscore the urgency of addressing the immediate needs through interventions that deliver direct and positive life-saving impacts, especially scaled-up treatment and harm reduction services.

Invites a fresh look at traditional drug policy data

Biden’s new approach acknowledges the need to consider “the full range of trends and activities, including consumption patterns, drug use consequences, prevention, harm reduction, treatment, recovery, drug production, transportation and distribution by drug trafficking organizations, and many more” as the basis for effective policy-making.