Both law enforcement agencies and society consider heroin and opioid abuse a criminal problem instead of a public health issue in the United States. The police treat addicts like criminals by throwing them in jails, where many either develop psychological disorders or end up dead while going through withdrawal.
However, in one of the commendable moves to combat the decade-long war on drugs, the Obama administration is attempting to shift the focus on heroin and prescription painkillers abuse by emphasizing the need to treat it as a disease. In fact, the White House, on Tuesday, unveiled a plan to spend more than $1 billion to fight the explosive epidemic.
To further highlight the new plan, President Barack Obama made an appearance at the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in Atlanta, Georgia, where he acknowledged the issue was a criminal matter until now because it wasn’t considered a threat to the white community.
“I think we have to be honest about this,” Obama said at the conference. “Part of what has made it previously difficult to emphasize treatment over the criminal justice system has to do with the fact that the populations affected in the past were viewed as or stereotypically identified as poor, minority.”
He also expressed concern that scores of Americans are “self-medicating” because mental health issues other problems in their lives, pointing to the fact that the line between alcohol addiction and harder substances was very thin.
“The most important thing to do is reduce demand,” the president continued. “And the only way to do that is to provide treatment — to see it as a public health problem and not a criminal problem.”
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He also highlighted the draconian treatment implemented by the police.
“One of the things that's changed in this opioid debate is that it reaches everybody," he added. "Because it's having an impact on so many people, we're seeing a bipartisan interest in addressing this problem... not just thinking in terms of criminalization or incarceration, which unfortunately has been our response to the disease of addiction.”
Under a Health and Human Services Department rule, proposed by the White House earlier in the day, qualified doctors will be allowed to increase the number of patients to whom they can prescribe buprenorphine from 100 to 200. Moreover, the rule would treat substance abuse and mental health services under Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program, which could reportedly affect more than 23 million people.
The new initiative also includes $94 million for community health centers, which could help 124,000 new patients, according to the White House, along with $11 million for states to distribute naloxone, a drug that reverses opioid overdoses.
Now, while the plan and increased funding seem to be a step in the right direction, it just might not be enough to fight the problem. For instance, as many online users have pointed out, the government should stop providing funds to the police department based on how many drug arrests they make, therefore, eliminating the financial incentive to the so-called war on drugs.
In addition to that, a number of Americans lose federal housing benefits and any hope of going to college because of minor drug offenses, a solution to which is not discussed in the new plan.
As the data suggests, in 2014, more than 28,000 people died in the U.S. from opioid overdoses, including 18,893 deaths linked to prescription painkillers like OxyContin and Vicodin and 10,574 fatalities related to heroin. Another research by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration found that 1.9 million Americans were addicted to prescription painkillers in 2014 while another 586,000 were addicted to heroin.