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Does criminalization of some drugs lead to more deaths?

Drugs like heroin are causing an epidemic of deaths throughout the U.S., and some states have enacted laws that make it easier to prevent these overdose deaths by making antidotes like naloxone available while protecting those who help from the severe penalties imposed by drug laws.

Iowa is not one of those states. Such a "Good Samaritan" bill has been rejected by Iowa's legislature, apparently because it considered "soft on crime." Heroin has long been classified by the federal government as a "Schedule I" substance. The Drug Enforcement Agency notes that these drugs "are the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence."

And heroin is dangerous and it is killing people. However, the current criminal statutes do virtually nothing to prevent that, and according to some, the criminalization and the stigma that attaches to drugs like heroin may lead to more deaths.

Heroin possession or trafficking carry severe penalties under federal and Iowa law, which, depending on the circumstance of your arrest could mean years in prison or fines ranging from a few thousand dollars to millions. In spite of these draconian sanctions, in 2013, more than 8,000 people died in the U.S. due to heroin overdoses.

Few people embark on using drugs with the intention of becoming an addict. But once addicted, very few can simply walk away from using. Criminal sanctions may be daunting, but they cannot match the power of the opiate receptors in the brain needing to satisfy their next hit.

The frightening consequence of a drug arrest has even led other users in some circumstances, to dump the body of the person suffering the overdose, rather than risk the criminal sanction of being arrested for their own drug use. This often leads to the overdose victim's death, instead of the prompt medical treatment they need.

Tragically, because this is viewed as a criminal law matter and not a public health issue, many more are likely to die.

 

Source: thedailybeast.com, "How to Survive the Heroin Epidemic," Zachary Siegel, January 5, 2016

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