It wasn’t until I attended a Women’s Student Union (WSU) meeting a few weeks ago that I would have ever even considered handing out clean needles to heroin addicts. When a member of the group first posed the question, I was taken aback. Why support such a deadly addiction? Why give people the tools necessary to shoot such a potent chemical into their veins?
Initially, I was perplexed by this idea. But after hearing many students’ reasoning behind the proposal, my initial discontent turned into approval.
Last Sunday, Binghamton University was lucky enough to host eight excellent TEDx speakers, and gabriel sayegh, who prefers his name uncapitalized, was among them. As a former addict and current director of the New York state office of the Drug Policy Alliance, sayegh is adamantly against the mass incarceration of drug users and moreover, against the negative connotations that surround them. Sayegh only reinforced what I had learned at the WSU meeting: The war on drugs can’t be won by eliminating such substances, and throwing users into jail will not stop the addiction.
In 1971, President Richard Nixon’s administration first launched the war on drugs. Since then, the United States has put just under 10 million people either in jail or under probation for the use or sale of drugs. One fact that sayegh noted that helps explain our country’s inability to correctly handle this war is that the U.S. makes up less than 5 percent of the entire world population, yet the amount of people we throw into jail is nearly 25 percent of incarcerated people worldwide.
The millions of people we mindlessly incarcerate for drug use are not taken to rehabilitation centers where they can appropriately recover; they are taken to jail, where the root of their addictions are overlooked and the conditions in which they are surrounded provide a heartless and intolerant environment that only fosters more pain.
The bottom line is that as long as drugs exist, people will use them. Unfortunately, deaths from overdose are not enough to stop people from using. Like any other mental illness or disease, drug addictions are beyond one’s control. According to the government-run website for the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Scientists estimate that genetic factors account for between 40 and 60 percent of a person’s vulnerability to addiction, including the effects of environment on gene expression and function.”
Trying to forcefully stop a national epidemic with incarceration simply will not work. Alternatively, offering users clean needles is a step in the right direction. By doing so, the U.S. will no longer turn a blind eye to those in need of help and no longer provide a gateway to infection or death. By providing users with clean needles, we are acknowledging that the problem that exists is larger than the illegality of the drugs and that we will cease simply removing those addicted as if they are failed members of society. The undertone associated with drug users is exactly that — that they are failures due to their own lack of respect or motivation.
But none of these things are true. Those with drug addictions have suffered, and they use drugs as a means to escape that suffering. One of my closest cousins, with whom I spent all of my childhood, developed an addiction to pills. It’s hard to see someone you love get swept away by a cloud of euphoria, which only momentarily stops the pain.
We should prevent further drug use not by mass incarceration, but by starting to ask how we can help the lives of those who do use.