By Andrea Reany

June 17, 2021, marked the 50th anniversary of the “War on Drugs,” when President Richard Nixon declared a “full-scale attack” on drug use. Trillions of dollars later, incarceration and preventable overdose deaths have skyrocketed and continue to rise.

The War on Drugs has failed. After 50 years, all our government has to show for the trillions it has spent to punish people who use drugs is broken lives, broken families and broken communities. So, we must move away from this failed strategy, to what we now know will work: treatments based on evidence and compassion.

It’s encouraging to see some changes on the federal level, such as the recent announcement of the Biden administration’s support for ending more severe sentences for crack cocaine possession, which overwhelmingly target people of color, versus powder cocaine. Handling the overdose crisis as a public health emergency is what saves lives. It is clearer than ever, as we continue to weather the pandemic, that a well-organized public health response can determine who lives and who dies.

Nationally, 2020 was the worst year for overdose deaths that we’ve ever seen: 90,000 people lost their lives to this crisis. Ohio knows this all too well. We are third in the nation for highest fatal drug overdose rate, with 4,000 deaths, according to the CDC’s most recent 2019 statistics. With Medically Assisted Treatment or access to harm reduction tools that are proven to save lives, instead of punishment, these people would still be alive today. A person can’t recover from drug addiction if they are no longer alive.

That’s why Nelsonville Voices and other groups like us have joined New York Rep. Paul Tonko’s call to pass the Mainstreaming Addiction Treatment (MAT) Act. This bill would make it easier for health care providers to prescribe treatments like buprenorphine, which have been proven to save lives.

When President Nixon first launched his crusade against drugs, he too called for more treatment and rehabilitation, but he quickly realized being “tough on crime” was better for him politically.

As Nixon’s White House Advisor John Erlichman explained to journalist Dan Baum years later, “By getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Nixon’s War on Drugs has entirely failed to reduce overdose deaths, but it has exponentially expanded our prisons and funding for our police and military. Presidents of both parties have since followed Nixon’s path and put millions of people behind bars, spending billions every year on drug enforcement at home and abroad. They have raised legal barriers to seeking treatment, rather than easing access to recovery services and supports. We know that poor people and people of color are most affected by this.

A substance use disorder is not a moral failure, but our response as a nation to this health issue has been. Denying access to forms of care which have been proven — time and again — to save lives, is what kills. We’re fifty years past due. End the War on Drugs now.

Andrea Reany is Southeast Ohio Field Organizer for Showing Up for Racial Justice Ohio.

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