Sentencing Project Publishes Report on Effective Approaches to the Opioid Crisis

The Sentencing Project has published a timely report on evidence-based responses to skyrocketing opioid addiction and overdose deaths, fueled by the booming legal market in prescription opioids like hydrocodone and oxycodone. In “Opioids: Treating an Illness, Ending a War,” published on December 13, 2018, the Project notes that unlike the heroin and crack crises of the past, there is broader support for preventative and treatment-based policy solutions because “the current opioid emergency has disproportionately affected white Americans—poor and rural, but also middle class or affluent and suburban.”

Of particular note is the Project’s reminder of the lessons to be learned from the drug war. Exacting an enormous emotional and economic toll that was disproportionately experienced among communities of color, the drug war with its punitively long prison sentences was largely ineffective in addressing drug usage:

Yet the War on Drugs did not play a major role in ebbing cycles of drug use. Following a comprehensive review of research, a 2014 report by the National Research Council concluded: “The best empirical evidence suggests that the successive iterations of the war on drugs—through a substantial public policy effort—are unlikely to have markedly or clearly reduced drug crime over the past three decades.” New York Times reporter Timothy Egan’s assessment of the nationwide crack crisis in 1999 illustrates how this drug ran its course for reasons other than criminal justice interventions. Egan compares the crack crisis with a fever: “It came on strong, appearing to rise without hesitation, and then broke, just as the most dire warnings were being sounded.” As they aged, crack users eventually desisted from using the drug, and younger people spurned the drug upon seeing its devastating effects—in what is known as the “younger sibling” effect. Aggressive law enforcement did not deter longtime users from the drug or eliminate adaptable drug markets, as revealed by anecdotes of police chiefs, surveys of past users, and comparisons across cities. For example, Egan notes that while declining crack use in New York City coincided with a massive buildup of arrests, Washington D.C. outpaced New York’s decline in cocaine use among young residents even though D.C. police reduced drug arrests in some years. Nevertheless, as Michael Tonry has argued, “the most intrusive laws and the cruelest penalties tend to be enacted after intolerance [toward the drug] has reached its peak and when drug use is already falling.”

But we still hear the “war on drugs” rhetoric today in response to the opioid crisis. AG Sessions, for example, recently said to a police academy in Ohio,“We must not capitulate intellectually or morally to drug use. We must create a culture that is hostile to drug abuse.” The Sentencing Project’s opioid report, which collates some excellent data, could prove to be a useful resource to counter punitive sentiments in opioid-related cases from prosecutors.

JaneAnne Murray