The health antidote to a heroin surge

Attorney General Eric Holder calls a rise in heroin use a 'health crisis.' He's right to focus on the health aspect – intervention, prevention, treatment. Addiction itself is not a crime but a cause for cure.

AP Photo
Susan White, a resident of Springfield, Vt., looks over booking photos displayed at a Vermont State Police news conference to discuss the arrest of 36 people as part of a drug sweep. In his State of the State address Jan. 8, Gov. Peter Shumlin called for treatment and education in addition to law enforcement as the best way to meet the state's growing challenge from the abuse of heroin and other opiates.

A rising level of addiction to heroin and other opiates has become an “urgent public health crisis” in the United States, Attorney General Eric Holder announced Monday. He didn’t say “public criminal justice crisis,” which one might have expected from the nation’s chief law enforcement officer.

Rather, Mr. Holder rightly focused on health – or how to prevent and treat addictive behavior, with an emphasis on each person’s right to health.

The Justice Department and Drug Enforcement Administration will still focus on criminal trafficking of lethal drugs. Heroin use in particular has more than doubled in the US between 2007 and 2012 while federal seizures of the drug at the Mexican border have tripled.

And with the prominent death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman last month from a mix of hard drugs, the issue of heroin abuse has been thrust into the spotlight. From 2006 to 2010, the US saw a 45 percent increase in such heroin overdoses.

Today’s heroin is less expensive, more potent, and, as Holder noted, used by more Americans “from every background and walk of life.” In January, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin devoted his entire State of the State message to the heroin crisis in his bucolic state. Holder noted that heroin-related deaths had jumped fourfold in northern Ohio.

As governments have made headway against the abuse of prescription painkillers, more addicts are turning to heroin. About 80 percent of heroin users have previously taken pain medication without a prescription.

Reversing this trend, as Holder said, requires the help of families, professional healers, teachers, police, and community leaders. Many antidrug programs targeted at young teens are known to be effective. And more judges are requiring mandatory treatment for convicted drug users rather than jail time.

In the US, only about 1 in 3 drug users receives treatment intervention. Yet every $1 in treatment saves between $4 and $12 in reduced crime and health-care costs, according to studies. The best approach is to reach adolescents before they are introduced to drugs. Parents and religious groups can instill a spiritual and moral purpose that will diminish the temptation for a young person to try mood-altering drugs.

Addicts often steal to buy drugs. But the compassionate view is to regard the addiction itself as a condition to be cured. Addicts need a multitude of support for their recovery, from loving care to a job to a restoration of broken relationships. To help prevent drug deaths, 17 states now offer limited immunity to those who seek medical help for someone who appears to be overdosing.

The attorney general’s warning should serve to look beyond enforcement of antidrug laws and improve each state’s treatment and intervention programs. Drug selling, buying, and use are still crimes. But dealing with addiction requires seeing health as available and possible for the addict.

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