In the United States, 142 people die of drug overdoses every day. President Donald Trump has rightly declared a public-health emergency and asked his health secretary to lead the federal response. But law-enforcement agencies also need an approach that puts a premium on public health, particularly as people are increasingly overdosing not on prescription medications but on street drugs like heroin and illicitly produced synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.
So far, however, the Justice Department is sending signals that it will be part of the problem rather than the solution.
In an announcement last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions made it clear that he will instruct staff to prosecute anyone possessing, selling, manufacturing, or importing a substance containing fentanyl and to subject them to higher penalties than those for heroin use. This may send more people to prison for longer, but more criminal prosecutions of people who use drugs will not curb overdose deaths.
Someone is arrested every 25 seconds in the United States for possessing drugs for personal use. This criminalization of personal drug use and possession has devastated individuals, families, and communities. Punitive approaches drive people who use drugs away from health services and do not reduce injection-drug use, in the United States or globally. Drug courts, endorsed by the Justice Department as a priority, still involve criminal charges and have not been proven to reduce drug use.
But there are alternatives. Public-health-based interventions are known to work, but many of these initiatives are limited by legal barriers or lack of federal support. The Justice Department can help. Here are three steps the attorney general could take that could have a positive and immediate impact on our nation’s opioid epidemic: