The North Carolina Senate is considering a bill that would sharply increase the penalties for possessing and distributing fentanyl, a type of opioid, changing possession from a misdemeanor to a felony, equivalent to cocaine. This strange reversal from the current national trend of decriminalizing drug use in favor of rehabilitation comes in response to North Carolina’s troublingly high rate of overdoses, accounting for about five deaths per day on average. Confusingly, the legislators' response involves targeting victims of the opioid epidemic instead of the pharmaceutical companies who lined their pockets for years while knowingly contributing to abuse of their product.
The proposed legislation only doubles down on years of drug policies that most NC State students experienced first-hand throughout school, despite the fact that many of us, including several people I know, have flaunted such advice to no obvious detriment. If the legislature is serious about tackling the opioid crisis, they should focus more on evidence than on this unproductive and puritanical policy.
A 2019 book summary — which reviews current empirical data on drug use as a public health issue — reports that criminalizing drug possession is not especially effective as drug policy. Indeed many jurisdictions which have removed such penalties have seen no associated increase in drug use. By contrast, the article indicates that needle replacement programs, supervised consumption sites and other interventions that aim to reduce the risks associated with taking drugs have shown marked improvements in reducing overdoses or other negative impacts.
One supporter of the Senate bill suggested it would help police hold drug dealers accountable, but the report suggests this may be an unwise allocation of resources even if true, noting that “supply-control interventions absorb the bulk of drug control spending in most nations, yet the evidence which would support these interventions is weak.” Thus rather than giving the criminal justice system more tools to resolve the issue, this law may simply encourage overspending on a largely ineffective strategy.
The drug war is one area where public officials could benefit by listening to new data and new voices, such as their children and grandchildren. Pew Research Center finds that a large majority of millennials support the legalization of marijuana, and this opinion is strongly bipartisan, held by 71% of Republicans and 78% of Democrats in this age group. While living and, really, breathing in a residence hall, it’s extremely evident how strongly some students approve of legalization.
The science on this issue is decently clear that we could be employing our resources much more efficiently if the primary goal for legislators is to reduce deaths from overdoses. More pressingly, the moral argument that we should be “holding people accountable” for an addiction, which by definition makes them act irrationally and against their own self-interests, is fairly shaky. This holds especially true when, quite possibly, the victim became addicted from a prescription by a medical professional and thus through no fault of their own.
The state legislature should stop considering this bill further and instead introduce legislation that would make medical help easier to obtain by those with addictions. As we’ve all learned in the past year, public health issues should be handled by health experts using the best available knowledge, not politicians trying to gin up their polling numbers by misleading the public about the nature of the problem.