Drug overdose deaths in the United States have hit a record high, with a solid majority of deaths involving the abuse of opioids. From 2009-2014 alone, nearly half a million people died from drug overdose, according to reports by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In its most recent set of data, updated in March of this year, the CDC noted that death rates related to the abuse of opioids has quadrupled since 1999.
The alarming increase of opioid abuse has become a notable concern, as doctors and patients alike attempt to strike a balance between pain management and fighting addiction that too often comes with using prescription medications
The epidemic has also come to the attention of policymakers. This January, President Obama indicated that addressing America’s addiction crisis was one of his highest priorities before leaving office, announcing that the 2017 budget would put aside $1.1 billion to help treat opioid addictions.
In an effort to help counter this disturbing trend, numerous states have made efforts to curb opioid abuse, many of which are seeing positive results.
Long Term Drug Treatment, Rather than Incarceration
In an effort to help those who have fallen victim to drug addiction, police departments across the country have begun partnering with treatment centers as an alternative to incarceration. As a result, these offenders are able to reap the benefits of long-term drug treatment, rather than spend time behind bars. This is an approach that has frequently been used in other countries with large success.
“Instead of relying heavily on incarceration, other countries successfully use community-based responses, treatment for addiction and services to ensure that once a person is released from prison, he or she does not return,” Amanda Petteruti, Associate director of the legal reform group Justice Policy Institute told the University of Cincinnati.
One such program in Texas has already seen success. Known as the Police-Assisted Addiction Recovery Initiative (PAARI), law enforcement officials take a compassionate approach towards drug users, by viewing addiction as a health issue, rather than a crime.
Immunity for Calling 911 or Seeking Emergency Medical Help
For many who experience or witness an overdose, the threat of jail time and incarceration can deter them from seeking medical help. In an effort to curb this, a growing number of states have replaced their “tough-on-crime” practices, instead adopting “Good Samaritan” or drug immunity laws, which allow a person to call emergency services to aid in an overdose without the fear of being incarcerated.
The results of the laws appear to be mixed. A 2011 University of Washington study implied that “88 percent of opiate users indicated that now that they were aware of the law, they would be more likely to call 911 during future overdoses.” But as journalist Justin Peters pointed out in a recent Slate publication, too few people are aware of the laws and as a result, aren’t making life-saving phone calls in times of crisis.
Medical Marijuana as an Opioid Alternative
Research suggests that medicinal marijuana could be used to fight the opioid addiction epidemic. According to a 2014 study published by in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the annual rate of deaths from opioid overdoses decreased by over 25 percent in states that had legalized medical marijuana.
Expanding access to medicinal marijuana may help patients who suffer from chronic pain, allowing patients to opt out of opioid treatment from the start.
Needle exchanges allow patients to visit a clinic weekly and trade in their used needles for sterile ones. Doing so protects the community in multiple ways, first by ensuring that discarded needles won’t injure non-users, but these programs also ensure that patients no longer use needles which could compromise their vital organs. Numerous organizations, including the CDC, praise these sorts of initiatives, as they save millions of dollars in healthcare costs.
While it’s unclear how Congress will move forward in addressing this widely complex issue, local efforts to combat the ongoing challenge have proven to have promising results in states across the country. With increased funding, research, and access to mental health services, developing strategies that combat the risks of opioid medications will become more widely available and effective.