It’s sad that society rises to a level of sympathy and understanding only when death by drug addiction strikes the rich and famous.
When poor Willie Smith is found behind the convenience store Dumpster at 5:00 a.m., lying dead with a needle in his arm, it gets zero attention by the news media. But when movie stars like Whitney Houston and Phillip Seymour Hoffman die by the needle, it’s big news, bringing a spurt of awareness until the story dies down.
Heroin is a dangerously addictive drug that is used by all facets of society, rich and poor. During my days as a cop, I met business people who functioned in a normal life, but hid their addiction from family and associates as they entered the sordid black market once a week to buy their “medicine.” They began using the drug earlier in life to fit in with their peers.
It’s getting worse. The Wall Street Journal reported in August that heroin use in the United States was soaring after a huge surge in production from Mexico during the past six years. In 2012, officials seized 1,989 kilograms of heroin compared to 487 kilos in 2008. The estimated number of heroin users increased from 373,000 in 2007 to 620,000 in 2011.
While isolating this substance from all others, we should note that if there were no pushers, there would be no sales. Many street sellers reward users for bringing in new customers, usually among the youth. Rewards generally come in the form of free dope. Heroin addicts are deathly afraid of withdrawals, because the sickness is horrible. Thus, the yoke of heroin is almost impossible to break.
Perhaps we should start thinking outside the box and consider the Swiss model that was implemented in the late 1990s after the Swiss people approved referendums to decriminalize heroin (use and possession) and set up special heroin programs. Until then, parks and railway stations in Switzerland were bustling with users and sellers, creating immense social problems, particularly with HIV and health care facilities, not to mention associated crime.
Switzerland set up Heroin Addiction Treatment (HAT) programs providing accessible heroin clinics for chronic addicts to receive free “medicine.” The results were staggering. During a period of seven years, incidents of deaths from drugs and HIV infections from needles dropped dramatically. The desperation factor disappeared for addicts who no longer had to rob and steal and turn on new junkies to support their habits. This pulled the rug from under the black market and the smugglers/sellers moved elsewhere.
Other countries, such as Germany and Portugal, along with Vancouver, Canada, have been conducting similar experiments with amazing results. Citizens are safer, drugs are regulated, needles are cleaner, prison populations are down and the market for new addicts has diminished.
In 2004, a World Health Organization report concluded that for every dollar invested in the HAT program, $12 is saved on law enforcement, judicial and health costs, not to mention prisons and victimization.
There are other ways to improve the crime problem in America. It’s not always about long prison sentences. It’s time for a change in thinking.
EDITORS NOTE: The featured image is titled Boiling up heroin. Author/Photographer: Hendrike (2001).