Nationwide, communities face an unprecedented rise in substance misuse fatalities. A record 63,600 overdose deaths were recorded in 2016, two-thirds of which involved opioids. To stem the tide of this crisis, some communities are doubling down on the war on drugs, despite clear evidence that increasing arrests and incarceration does not lower drug use. But an increasing number of cities are bucking the trend and adopting models that treat substance misuse as a disease, not a crime. Instead of criminalizing substance use disorders, communities are focusing on saving lives and reducing the harmful effects of drug use.
The idea of “harm reduction” may seem like common sense today, but it signifies a radical departure from traditional U.S. responses to drug use, which relied heavily on the criminal justice system. More and more cities are expanding access to clean syringes, launching safe-injection facilities, and decriminalizing possession of controlled substances. Public acceptance of these approaches was unthinkable just a few years ago. Today, however, they are filtering into the mainstream. In fact, support for harm reduction spans the ideological spectrum. These strategies are underway in red and blue states alike, representing promising steps toward dismantling the country’s failed drug policy agenda.