As of February 20, there have been 45 drug overdose deaths in the state of Rhode Island since the start of 2014. This amounts to nearly one death a day — approximately double the number seen at this time in 2012. Though its 2010 rate was the highest in the Northeast, Rhode Island is not alone in these disturbing trends. Overdose deaths in the nation at large have tripled since 1990, and in the past four years they have accounted for the largest share of death by unintentional injury, which certainly amounts to a national public health crisis.
Across Rhode Island and the nation at large, we are facing a public health crisis that we are poorly equipped to handle, since we largely choose to incarcerate rather than treat drug addicts. We can criticize the War on Drugs for multiple reasons, such as its racial overtones or its failure to curb drug use and abuse rates. But today we would primarily like to draw attention to its failure to offer solutions to the epidemic of opiate addiction, overdose and death.
Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin P’14 dedicated his entire 2014 State of the State address to the problem of heroin addiction in Vermont, proposing particular budget allocations and policy changes that we might model in Rhode Island, where the issue of drug overdose is comparable in its nature and scope. Shumlin primarily suggests serious investment in treatment centers, an important reform given that in Vermont incarcerating someone caught with heroin costs approximately 10 times as much as it does to treat someone for his or her addiction. We encourage Rhode Island to consider policy options not mentioned in the governor’s speech including safe injection sites. Safe injection sites provide users and addicts with security, including professionals who are trained to deal with overdose and provide the treatment and education needed to reduce or eliminate use among addicts. Generally speaking, the conversation needs to move away from criminal punishment for drug use toward harm reduction-based drug policy.
To its credit, Rhode Island has adopted a few appropriate measures to curb the impact of overdose-related deaths. Most notably, the Good Samaritan Law ensures those who call for emergency services in the event of a drug overdose will not be held liable for distributing or possessing illicit drugs. This law incentivizes individuals to prioritize the health of the person who has overdosed over the cost of risking prison time, though it is only an effective law if people know about it and if it can be renewed upon reevaluation. Furthermore, the Rhode Island Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals are now training staff on naxalone administration, which can reverse the effects of opiate overdose. These organizations will also require their staff to offer naxalone to patients with a history of opiate addiction upon discharge.
While we commend the state for these measures, we believe drug policy needs a much grander overhaul across the state and nation. How many more overdose-related deaths will we tolerate until we recognize the need to address drug addiction as a public health issue and call for comprehensive reform?
Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editors, Matt Brundage ’15 and Rachel Occhiogrosso ’14, and its members, Hannah Loewentheil ’14 and Thomas Nath ’16. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.