Changes To Drug Policy Prioritizes Harm Reduction
After an unprecedented amount of overdose deaths this past year, President Biden’s administration is prioritizing a non-traditional treatment approach to substance use disorders (SUD): harm reduction programs.
Pandemic Collides With Epidemic
In the past 12 months, the United States experienced a 30% increase in overdose deaths. According to the Centers For Disease Control And Prevention (CDC), this unparalleled uptick resulted in a record-breaking 90,000 drug related deaths. It is believed that the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to this surge due to the nature of stay-at-home orders. When non-essential businesses were required to temporarily close last March, people all over the country were out of work and confined to their homes. For people who are currently or have previously suffered from an addiction, the consequences of self-isolation were especially detrimental.
Many treatment centers across the country were forced to close but some did their best to provide help even though people were not allowed inside their facilities. Some centers offered supplies through pick up windows and curbside services. Along with treatment being less available, drugs became even more dangerous to use. Due to increased demand, illegal substances became more frequently cut with synthetic opioids like fentanyl which is now the most common drug present in overdose deaths at 59 percent in the U.S.
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Biden’s Drug Policy Plan And Funding
Since being sworn into office in January, President Biden has made it clear that his goal is to lower the number of overdose deaths. To achieve this, Biden’s drug policy plan focuses on a treatment approach that the drug reform community has been recommending for years: evidence-based harm reduction.
The American Rescue Plan Act, which was signed in March of this year, includes a $4 billion budget for substance use disorders with $30 million allocated to harm reduction facilities. This act is unprecedented as Biden is the first to propose financially backing harm reduction programs despite being created over 40 years ago.
What Is Harm Reduction?
Harm reduction programs attempt to lower the risk of overdose death and diseases like HIV by reducing the harmful consequences affiliated with substance abuse. These non-judgmental, non-coercive programs are not driven by the abstinence from drugs but rather finding safer ways to use them. To establish safer situations, harm reduction programs provide items like sterile syringes and tools that can detect fentanyl in a substance. In doing so, these programs advocate for the rights of drug users and empower individuals to be responsible for reducing the negative effects that may come from their choice to use an illicit drug. Despite criticism, harm reduction programs do not attempt to understate the harms and danger that are at risk when using illicit drugs.
Widespread support for harm reduction programs has been hard to develop as many elected officials and communities are not sold on idea of giving out supplies for drug use. In West Virginia, where HIV numbers are on the rise, Governor Jim Justice passed a bill that will make it even harder for harm reduction centers to be successful. This restrictive bill requires that a West Virginia ID must be shown in order to receive treatment. The West Virginia bill and other oppositions are typically backed by the concern that their community will become littered with syringes or experience a spike in crime rates.
What Impact Will Increased Funding Have On Harm Reduction Programs?
By providing more funding to harm reduction programs, the American Rescue Plan will help to establish a sense of community and a resource for those suffering from an addiction. The increased overdose deaths and the absence of support and treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic makes this funding even more significant. Additionally, harm reduction programs recognize the realities of racism, class, poverty, and other social inequalities and how they affect an individual’s vulnerability to drug related risks. This is important as marginalized populations in the United States experienced higher-than-normal COVID related deaths and unemployment rates. The funding of harm reduction programs can help communities that were disproportionally devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the increased number of drug overdose related deaths.