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Can decriminalization fix America’s drug crisis?

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It’s no secret America has a drug problem. Last year, there were more than 100,000 overdose deaths in America, largely attributed to fentanyl. Over the past few decades, American cities have struggled to grapple with this crisis. Instead of enforcing existing drug laws and cracking down on crime, some have chosen a different path: decriminalization.

Author and podcast host Christina Dent recently joined "Relatable" with Allie Beth Stuckey to advocate for the decriminalization of drugs as a solution to America’s growing addiction crisis. Dent pushes a “health-centered approach” as opposed to a “criminal justice approach.” The former, according to Dent, addresses the root cause of addiction, while the latter could do more harm than good.

Dent’s opinion was largely formed through her experience with her adopted son’s biological mom, who was an addict. Had her son’s biological mother been imprisoned for her drug use, Dent’s son never would have had a relationship with her, and incarceration would have done nothing to help her addiction.

It’s true that throwing drug users in jail does little to help their addictions and could even harm them due to the availability of drugs in prisons. However, the ambiguous definition of “decriminalization” paired with the troubling results seen in American cities that have attempted such policies raises questions about the efficacy and safety of going this route.

Take Oregon, for example. In 2020, voters overwhelmingly passed a resolution that decriminalized possession of hard drugs. Last month, Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek (D) signed a bill that reversed this measure and re-criminalized possessing small amounts of hard drugs, making it a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail. The original measure failed largely due to botched implementation of mental health and treatment services, sparks in overdoses due to fentanyl, increased homelessness, and worsening public drug use. A recent report shows Oregon is one of the top ten most dangerous states in the country — it’s hard to imagine public drug use did not play a part in Oregon’s worsening crime.

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Nebraska considers amending law to allow pharmacies to give out needles for controlled substance use

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Nebraska has proposed legislation that would allow pharmacies and health programs to distribute hypodermic needles that would be used for illicit drugs, in attempt to prevent the spread of disease.

Bill 307 was passed in the Nebraska legislature by a vote of 37-2 and will ultimately need approval through another round of voting before being given to Republican Governor Jim Pillen for review.

State Senator Megan Hunt, who introduced the bill on January 11, 2024, thanked her colleagues for approaching her with their issues instead of rejecting the legislation.

"Instead of just voting no, you brought your questions to me and we resolved them," she said, according to SCNR."That’s really what we were sent here to do. That’s what the work of lawmaking is about."

As of at least March 2023, Senator Hunt was a member of the Democratic Socialists of America.

The law currently says it is a crime for any person to "deliver, possess with intent to deliver, or manufacture" drug paraphernalia knowing that it would be used to "manufacture, inject, ingest, or inhale or otherwise be used to introduce into the human body a controlled substance."

The new bill would amend the law to exclude pharmacies and "the staff or participants of a public or behavioral health program."

Violating the state law can result in a Class II misdemeanor, which can be punished by more than six months and a $1,000 fine.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, when people inject drugs through a syringe service program, they are more likely to enter treatment for substance abuse. As well, the CDC also claimed that those who have used syringe service programs regularly are "nearly three times as likely to report a reduction in injection frequency as those who have never used" such a program.

The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction noted that the United States "supports a continued congressional ban on the use of federal funds to support" needle exchange programs.

In other countries like the Netherlands, the first needle exchange program on record was implemented in Amsterdam in 1984.

Canada established its first program in 1989 and now operates over 30 across the country. Similar to the proposed Nebraska bill, Canadian law dictates that syringes cannot be provided for illicit drugs unless the needle is "represented for use in preventing" HIV infection.

Syringe exchange programs were operational in over 40 states as of 2022, SCNR noted.

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