The fatal drug overdose rate in the United States has more than tripled in the past 20 years. In 1999, the death rate from drug overdoses was 6.1 per 100,000. In 2019, that number spiked to about 21.6 per 100,000.
It is impossible to overstate the crisis we’re in. Addiction killed over 70,000 people in the United States last year, or almost 20,000 more Americans annually than the Vietnam War. Overdoses kill four times as many people as homicides do. Every single one of these cases contributes to broken families, crushed dreams and the cycle of poverty. We need to stop pushing for policies that clearly are not working, and move towards stricter but more pragmatic options.
Prescription drugs now kill more people than heroin does. Physicians and psychiatrists, people we trust, are pumping out poison. It is not enough to provide self-help services to addicts. We need to eliminate their access to what’s destroying them.
Sure, we claim we’re trying to help. We shovel money into rehabilitation centers in the hope of digging users out of the void of addiction through social services. This is the progressive stance: Things will get better as long as we’re kind.
Of course, we should be kind to those suffering. But we also need to be effective. Progressives want to solve this problem through increased social spending and “harm reduction.” San Francisco, which has tried to remedy its narcotic outbreak through these means, is failing. Furthermore, anywhere between 40 percent and 60 percent of people struggling with addiction relapse. This statistic includes narcotics that are far less fatal and addictive than opioids. This isn’t due to a lack of resources. Even the most expensive facilities, like the $50-60,000month Cliffside Malibu and AToN Center, avoid publishing success rates in cases dealing with substance abuse. We have to help those who relapse, too, and throwing money at the problem is not working.
Just a few weeks ago, Border Patrol caught US citizens in the process of smuggling enough fentanyl pills to kill 200,000 Americans. The fact that contemporary border discourse is centered entirely around illegal immigration — and not also drug trafficking — is a disservice to the entire country. Settle the #abolishICE vs #BuildThatWall debate later. Building a wall isn’t going to stop major cartels that can dig massive tunnels underneath them, and reducing the amount of personnel at the border certainly wouldn’t help to reduce the amount of opioids entering the country. Tens of thousands of people are dying, and we need all hands on deck.
I’m not advocating for a “War on Drugs 2.0.” Severe penalties on drug users harm those we are trying to help. So we have to cut the supply. According to OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan organization that tracks lobbying, the pharmaceutical industry lobbied four times as much in 2020 and 2016 than in 2012 and 2008. What a coincidence! Big Pharma just so happened to dramatically increase donations when the opioid epidemic began to pick up press coverage. Additionally, if one were to click the hyperlinks embedded, one would see a fascinating pattern of donors favoring “establishment” candidates.
On the subject of politics, recent criminal justice reform makes me fear that the Overton window is moving in a dangerous direction. Clemency demands for non-violent drug offenders sometimes fail to distinguish between dealers and users. We should be empathetic with addicts. Severity would not help. However, kindness towards someone who distributes toxic substances is not empathetic, it’s cruel. I’m not talking about your local pot dealer. Marijuana is far more benign, and should thus be treated accordingly. No, I’m referring to the people who knowingly cause and profit off of suffering. Hard drug sellers should be locked up — with harsh penalties — to dissuade other, would-be opioid dealers. More effort needs to be directed against the cartels that are destroying both our communities and their own.
Some may point to the circumstances faced by the dealers themselves, and request leniency on their behalf. Dealers themselves can be addicts, after all. I reject that. If someone assaulted a pedestrian to cover the expenses of their drug-habits, we would not merely suggest rehab. We’d incarcerate them, because they have proven to be a threat to civilians around them. Illicit opioids cause far more harm than violent crime. While we can recognize that addiction incentivizes crime, in order to protect innocent people, we must remove all dealers’ abilities to destroy. Why should we treat a fentanyl salesman any differently than pimps or human smugglers? We should not be generous with criminals making money off murder.
Others may advocate for tackling long-term factors like poverty instead of short-term, punitive policy. First of all, we should note that data on opioid dealer demographics is rather obscure. There’s no reason to think that the poor sell most opioids, especially with these drugs’ prevalence within wealthy communities. However, even if it were true that anti-poverty measures could reduce the amount of dealers in America, we would still have to help the people struggling right now. We can do both, simultaneously.
This still isn’t the end. We need to seriously reevaluate the spiritual health of our society. Happy people don’t take drugs that may kill them. The policies I am advocating for solely address the symptoms of depression. That’s a conversation for another day, though.
ARON RAVIN is a first year in Benjamin Franklin College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.