Guns and jails won't solve drug crisis

Iowa Republicans warming to harm reduction policies

Cedar Rapids, city of. (Old) Linn County (Co.) Jail. Paperback books, newspapers, a variety of magazines, playing cards and a bottle of hand lotion are stored on the bars of a cellblock in the Linn County Jail. There is not much to do in the cell, but the cards and reading material help pass the time. The jail is considerably cleaner than it was in 1974. Five years ago, the floor visible in the left side of this photo was heavily littered with scraps of paper and trash. November 3, 1979.
Cedar Rapids, city of. (Old) Linn County (Co.) Jail. Paperback books, newspapers, a variety of magazines, playing cards and a bottle of hand lotion are stored on the bars of a cellblock in the Linn County Jail. There is not much to do in the cell, but the cards and reading material help pass the time. The jail is considerably cleaner than it was in 1974. Five years ago, the floor visible in the left side of this photo was heavily littered with scraps of paper and trash. November 3, 1979.

Lawmakers have an opportunity this year to drastically reduce the impacts one of our most pressing public health crises, and join the majority of states taking a smarter approach in responding to drug use.

The Iowa Legislature is considering a pair of Republican-sponsored bills which advocates say will save lives and money. The legislation would exempt approved hypodermic needles from the state’s list of illegal drug paraphernalia, and create a needle exchange program under the Iowa Department of Public Health.

The public policy dialogue over needle programs stems from the opioid crisis emerging across the United States in recent years. Aside from the impacts of the drugs themselves, people who use dirty needles are at risk of serious infections like HIV.

Most states allow needle exchange programs, which offer clean needles to people who use intravenous drugs. Iowa is one of about a dozen states without an official program, yet that doesn’t mean needle exchanges don’t exist here.

“Every other state in the country that doesn’t have a legal exchange program, has illegal exchange programs operating,” said Sarah Ziegenhorn, executive director of the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition

Interest in needle exchange programs marks a slow but important shift in the state’s approach to drug prohibition.

Governments usually respond to drug use with law enforcement. It has been an enormous, deadly and expensive mistake. Politicians are realizing the drug war won’t be won with guns and jails.

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Instead, policymakers are increasingly turning to harm reduction strategies, which focus on managing the worst social, economic and health consequences of drugs, and not on criminal penalties for the people who choose to use drugs.

Until recently, harm reduction has been championed almost entirely by public health professionals and the political left. However, conservative politicians are finally starting to realize the pitfalls of government bans.

It should be an easy shift for those who study history and economics, which are filled with clear evidence that governments’ attempts to control personal behavior are overwhelming failures.

Far from eliminating or even reducing drug use, prohibitionist policies instead have made drugs more dangerous by pushing them into black markets, with little accountability or oversight. By contrast, harm reductionists understand the government has no ability to end drug use.

Iowa’s needle exchange proposal has Republican sponsors in the both House and Senate. A legislative subcommittee is scheduled to meet Wednesday in Des Moines to discuss Senate Study Bill 3008.

Advocates say their bill has widespread support among Republicans and Democrats, along with a diverse group of health care lobbyists. However, opposition from key Republican leaders still could block the legislation this session.

“If the bill doesn’t pass this year, it won’t be for a lack of interest or for a lack of support, it will be a lack of prioritization. Some folks don’t see this bill as a priority in the current session but we’re trying to make the argument,” Ziegenhorn told me last week.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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