An average of 125 people die a day from drug overdoses, primarily driven by prescription painkillers and heroin. That is more than car accidents. Overdoses have increased in nearly every county in the U.S. between 2002 and 2014. Heroin used to be primarily used by inner-city young men, but today suburban areas and the White middle and upper class are the primary users. Nearly 90% of those who began heroin use in the decade prior to 2013 were White, which is likely a big reason the drug is getting so much attention. The problem is forcing presidential candidates to address the issue. Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton released a $10 billion plan to combat the drug epidemic.
Heroin and painkillers use is closely tied, according to the CDC. Users turn to heroin after their prescriptions run out. When the U.S. and its doctors cracked down on opioid prescriptions in the late 1990s, addicts found another source for their high – heroin. Substance abusers come in contact with the law for buying, selling or using and are sent to jail, only to get out and buy, sell and use again. Of the 1.5 million prison and jail inmates who met clinical diagnostic criteria for a substance use disorder in 2006, only 11.2 percent had received any type of professional treatment since admission.
Luckily, the mindset is shifting to treat addiction as a health issue instead of a crime for non-violent offenses. One such example is Gloucester’s Angel program, developed by the police chief in Gloucester, MA. The new, 7-month old program aims to combat opioid, especially heroin use, by connecting users with rehabilitation services instead of arresting them. Any 18 years or older drug user that comes to the police station with their drug equipment or drugs is immediately assigned an “angel” that guides them through the treatment process. The program assisted 260 drug addicts in a 5-month period in 2015, with only one death as of October 2015 compared to 5 deaths in the first 5 months of 2015. Additionally, 200 treatment centers across the country have committed to be partners. The idea is that by linking them with rehabilitation programs and other services, the likelihood of relapse, repeated crimes and jail time (both costly to taxpayers) is decreased. According to the Chief of Police, treatment costs $55 per person, whereas taxpayers pay about $220 per person to arrest, detain and process a person through the court system. The Angel program at the police department is funded by money seized from drug dealers. The rehabilitation services are covered by the person’s insurance and residents without insurance are connected with state-funded programs. Other similar efforts have been undertaken in New Hampshire after the state saw a 72.5 percent increase in drug deaths from 2013 to 2014. Seattle is also changing its practices.
Jail cells don’t treat the drug problem and they cost more than treatment. So let’s stop treating addiction like a crime.