Dan Vergano BuzzFeed News ReporterLast updated on August 2, 2021, at 11:25 a.m. ET
Posted on August 2, 2021, at 6:00 a.m. ET
The Biden administration is pushing to reform state drug laws in its latest move aimed at preventing deaths among people who use illegal drugs. The new approach focuses on so-called “harm reduction” measures that promote safe drug use over abstinence and the threat of imprisonment.
On Monday, the Office of National Drug Control Policy announced a $2.5 million grant to draft model laws to support such harm reduction programs, increase drug treatment options, and reform criminal statutes that have harmed people of color in particular. It’s the federal drug policy office’s latest shift away from the “War on Drugs” strategy that was started during the Nixon administration 50 years ago.
It’s frankly refreshing to see this office talking about helping people, and not about punishing them,” said epidemiologist Traci Green, director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at Brandeis University. “For better or worse, model laws for controlled substances have led to changes in the past. So it is smart, I think, to follow this path to reform laws that unfortunately need modernizing in many states.”
Last year, more than 93,000 people died of drug overdoses in the US, the highest number ever. The increase was driven in part by the social isolation created by the pandemic, as well as by the wider spread of fentanyl, a drug some 25 to 40 times more potent than heroin, into the illicit drug market. The awareness that overdose deaths are only increasing, combined with reports of HIV outbreaks among people who use drugs in West Virginia and Boston, has intensified efforts to move to a harm reduction approach in the federal response to drug use. In direct contrast, however, some cities, such as Charleston, West Virginia, and Atlantic City, New Jersey, have recently shut down needle exchange sites, which are known to decrease the risks of infectious diseases spreading among people who use illicit drugs.
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