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opinion | Jack Cole

End the prohibition of heroin

A cop’s experience tells him the drug war is doing more harm than good

illustration by nick ogonosky for the boston globe

For 14 of the 26 years I served with the New Jersey State Police, I worked undercover narcotics. On the job, I saw first-hand the addictive power of opiates. Yet I also came to understand that the destruction of whole communities did not primarily result from the use or misuse of those drugs. No, the damage came from people — cops — doing what I did: dragging buyers and sellers away from their families and slamming them into the criminal justice system, depriving both them and their neighborhoods of all hope. I witnessed people we disparagingly called “junkies” dying with needles in their arms not because heroin is a poison but because the heroin was poisoned. I did more harm than good, and the harder my colleagues and I tried, the more damage we did.

Today, the relentless, appalling loss of life associated with heroin and other dangerous drugs has become commonplace. As a police officer, I understand the instinct to mete out punishment, send a message, put somebody away for abusing drugs. Nonetheless, my experience has shown me that it is futile, counterproductive, and dangerous to try to arrest our way out of this very real problem.

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Heroin’s status as a Schedule I illegal drug has ceded its control and distribution to the most unscrupulous and unregulated players among us with the predictably tragic results. Prohibition has completely failed to curb either supply or demand for opiates. It has not only failed to protect our young and vulnerable, but also cost many their lives — deaths from heroin overdose alone have increased ninefold since the drug war began. The whole family of opiates is dangerous, seductive, and addictive under the best of circumstances, but when the circumstances are defined by a destabilizing cat-and-mouse game for those in the thrall of addiction, those dangers are intensified.

Indeed, the costs of the drug war have been enormous and with nothing to show in terms of increasing public safety. The US judicial system is overwhelmed with drug offenses. Yet, in just one example, Edward Walsh, Taunton’s police chief, recently admitted that a high-profile — and presumably resource-intensive — arrest of a major dealer failed to reduce either drug use or street prices, and that is precisely the opposite of what drug warriors promise. Other cities, such as Chicago, have suffered from Al Capone-like street violence. And after nearly a half century of the US as the arrest capital of the world, the endless cycle in and out of our prisons shows little sign of slowing.

Draconian drug laws have also done little to improve public health. That’s easy to see by comparing the impact of heroin to that of another potentially lethal substance, alcohol.

If users know how much heroin they are consuming, and that their heroin is uncontaminated, they do not overdose. But Worcester police chief Gary Gemme has noted that today’s street heroin — often mixed with other substances so dealers can maximize their profits — is of such unpredictable purity that users are endangered every time they take a hit. Alcohol, because we are able to regulate it, carries no similar risk. Both casual and addicted drinkers know what they’re getting; quality control and purity are non-issues. There is no “epidemic” of “baffling” deaths related to alcohol. And there has been no underground, black-market economy built up around street dealers pushing alcohol on our children.

The good news is that there are better, more effective models than zero-tolerance prohibition. As opiate addiction is increasingly recognized as a suburban, as well as an inner city problem, we are seeing the birth of more non-judgmental approaches that include open dialogue about stigmatization and increased availability of health insurance to cover treatment programs — and these changes have borne fruit. That has certainly been the case as more and more police officers carry and use the overdose reversal drug, naloxone, saving countless lives.

On the global scene, six countries — including Australia, Canada, and Germany — have introduced supervised injection sites where people sadly but safely meet their heroin addiction. This has dramatically reduced the risk of blood diseases related to illicit drug use, such as hepatitis C and HIV, and it has eliminated overdose deaths at those sites.

Drug addiction is a manageable disease and societal issue as long as we help, not hunt, those suffering from it. And once we stop the endless chase, these vulnerable people can finally focus on getting their disorganized lives together and begin the long process of recovery.

If, instead, we insist on continuing the grandstanding approach of being “tough on drugs,” we will only see more tragedies next year — perhaps next week.

It is a brutal irony that our drug policy inadvertently makes already dangerous drugs even more dangerous. And cheap. And available. And the harder we push a prohibitionist approach, the harder our children fall.

Jack Cole was a police officer for 26 years and is now board chair of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of police, prosecutors, judges, and other law enforcement officials. He lives in Medford.
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