Opinion Extra

Op-ed: Don’t fight fentanyl crisis with failed drug policies of the past

A Narcan kit
A Narcan kit Clackamas County Sheriff's Office

New data shows overdose deaths are at an all-time high across the country, and are increasing in South Carolina. A problem of this magnitude will not be solved by our state alone. Fortunately, Congress has been passing legislation to expand addiction services and to treat the crisis as a public health issue. Yet now the rise of fentanyl has scared some leaders into backing down from strategies shown to improve public health. Instead, some politicians are returning to the very drug war strategies that failed us.

I was born as the Vietnam war was winding down and President Nixon decided to start a new war on drugs at home. I served as a police officer in North Charleston, working on the front lines of this war on drugs. I arrested people for drug-related crimes in an effort to keep our neighborhoods safe. Across the nation, law enforcers like me arrested more of our citizens for drugs than any other country. My team and I quickly saw the futility of this strategy. New drug sellers immediately set up shop elsewhere, taking advantage of a lucrative opportunity we helped foster with prohibition. Price, purity, use and abuse rates, violence, and overdose death rates have only gotten worse.

I will never forget responding to a 911 call at a Waffle House to find a woman who locked herself in the bathroom and unintentionally overdosed on heroin mixed with fentanyl. She wasn’t trying to get high just for fun. She wasn’t trying to become some drug crazed criminal. She was a daughter and a sister who was suffering immensely. She was trying to manage her pain and got sucked into a dangerous spiral.

The “dealer” who provided her the deadly dose was her friend. He was no evil kingpin. He overdosed and nearly died himself but was revived in time with Narcan. He had no idea the heroin had fentanyl in it. Incarcerating him for her murder would have served no purpose, and any message it sent to other users would in fact have been counterproductive. When we try to threaten our way out of the drug problem, people who most need help instead hide and run from us. Research shows the more police make low-level arrests, the more people die of overdose.

Congress recognizes that we need to focus on reducing drug use through treatment and recovery instead of re-escalating policies that prohibit certain substances and criminalize users. Since 2016, Congress has passed bills to increase funding for addiction recovery services. Late last year, our very own Senator Lindsey Graham played a key role in reducing long prison sentences for drug offenses.

Now, fear of fentanyl may cause a big step backward. Senator Graham just held a hearing on a bill that would cede control over fentanyl sentencing from Congress to the DEA, with no checks or balances. The bill would give the DEA a green light to arrest and incarcerate more people, and close the door on life-saving research.

We could not incarcerate our way out of trouble with crack in the 80s or methamphetamine in the 90s, and we must not be fooled into thinking it will work for fentanyl. We must reject bills like the SOFA Act, which only make it more difficult to reach those most in need. We need our leaders in Congress to instead urgently invest in treatment.

Raeford Davis is a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a nonprofit group of police, prosecutors, judges, and other law enforcement officials working to improve the criminal justice system.