How Can We Fight Opioids with Progressive Policy?

“no drugs” by Anderson Mancini is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Rising fentanyl use in Vermont is incredibly scary. According to the Vermont Department of Health, the synthetic opioid was to blame for half of the state’s 104 overdose deaths in 2016. While fentanyl acts on brain receptors in a similar way to heroin or morphine, it is fifty to one hundred times more powerful, thus drastically increasing its lethality, especially when ingested unknowingly with heroin laced with the substance.  While there is no question that lawmakers and the community are united in wanting to stop the use of fentanyl by our relatives, friends, and neighbors, there is uncertainty and disagreement in discussing how to best curb its spread and abuse. A plan by the House and Senate to impose harsher penalties on individuals dealing fentanyl, supported by Mayor Weinberger and Police Chief Del Pozo, in an effort to stop its spread, is a tactic whose efficacy has not been proven in research or study.

The new law aims to make penalties for possession a maximum of two years in jail and a $10,000 fine, and selling four milligrams of any drug containing fentanyl would cost a maximum of 10 years in jail and a $250,000 fine.

While fentanyl distribution should be vigorously discouraged, studies on “tough on crime” policies have shown inconsistent results, and have failed to establish clear correlation between tougher sentencing and reduced distribution. Moreover, if the end goal is to decrease the use of fentanyl and other life threatening opioides, “Achieving better health outcomes for drug users cannot be shown to be a direct result of the enforcement approach.

Instead, I would advocate for the state to continue increasing funding for mental health supports, as well as providing robust treatment services to those struggling with substance use, and establishing better supports in rural areas. Such a strategy is being implemented in Alberta, Canada, where doctors hope demand reduction and greater safety features will decrease demand and distribution of the substance. Policies to better fight the opiate epidemic include stricter controls on opioid prescriptions, more training around fentanyl use, and no abrupt withdrawal or tapering of opioid medications for those in treatment.

Here at home, State Rep. Selene Colburn (Burlington, P/D) recently spearheaded a bill that would offer medication-assisted detox and treatment in Vermont state prisons, which seems a promising approach to a complex problem. Locking up dealers for longer is a classic example of treating the symptom, not the problem. If the state is to make lasting gains in the fight against opiate addiction it must increase outreach and funding for proven and effective treatment methods, rather than simply trying to cut the drug off at the source. As time has shown, there will unfortunately always be emerging drugs and opportunities to get high, and so the best course of action is to help alleviate the conditions pushing Vermonters to use, and to increase supports for long-term users who are in need of help.