By Everet Rummel
In the 1960s and 1970s a widespread “heroin epidemic” ravaged cities in the U.S., Europe, and Canada. Teenagers largely switched to smoking crack-cocaine in the 1980s, but heroin use has never fallen off completely.
Heroin’s official name is diamorphine, but it has acquired a vast array of street names, including smack, H, horse, and junk (the term “junkie” most often refers to heroin addicts). It is a narcotic synthesized from morphine molecules found in the opium poppy; which since the Vietnam War has been cultivated extensively in the “Golden Triangle” of Northern Thailand, Burma, and Laos and more recently in Afghanistan and Mexico. As most may already know, heroin is a recreational drug used for the intense euphoria it induces and characterized by the high rate of tolerance and dependence in users. What’s more, users typically experience withdrawal symptoms within 24 hours of last usage, creating a constant need for a fix.
Safe withdrawal from heroin use requires months of treatment. Users are typically encouraged to join detox and rehabilitation programs. Prescription drugs such as methadone and buprenorphine are used block the effects of heroin and eliminate adverse withdrawal symptoms.
However, any treatment regime depends on the compliance of the addict, which is not always the case. Some addicts have also failed to benefit from methadone and other prescription treatments. In order to reduce the harm caused to and by addicts who cannot or will not comply with treatment programs, several countries have experimented with decriminalizing, regulating, and even facilitating heroin usage. In this respect, efforts to treat heroin addiction in America have lagged behind those in other developed nations for decades.
Heroin assisted treatment (HAT) approaches, which provide safe sites for addicts to inject under the supervision of medical professionals or even provide free heroin, have been adopted as national policy in Switzerland and the Netherlands. HAT trials have also been run in Spain, Germany, Great Britain, and even our neighbor Canada. Trials and studies have shown HAT to reduce heroin-related deaths, crime, and HIV infection since injection is supervised and there is no need to break the law in order to pay for one’s next fix.
Federal law in the U.S. still views recreational drugs such as cannabis, cocaine, and heroin as dangerous drugs used by criminals who should be incarcerated. The War on Drugs is largely considered to have failed to provide addicts with the treatment they need to survive and thrive in our society. Drug-related celebrity deaths tend to hit the public particularly hard, but so should the disease, death, and despair plaguing the average addict every day. It is time the public considers helping addicts by decriminalizing small quantities of recreational drugs and providing addicts with a wide range of treatment options, including heroin assisted treatment, which have shown to be more beneficial and cost-effective than criminalization in countries that approach addiction humanely.