Addiction requires treatment, not punishment

It’s no secret Portland has a drug problem. Anyone who rides the MAX regularly or walks around downtown can see the area’s drug problem as plainly as the weather. Injectable drugs like heroin and methamphetamine are among the worst, not only because of the addictive propensity of the drugs themselves, but also because of the use and disposal of needles and overdose rates.

The biggest problem with heavy drug use in Portland is the city itself. According to NorthPoint Recovery, “In 2014, more than half of all heroin-related deaths in Oregon occurred in Multnomah County, in and around Portland…Deaths related to methamphetamine use are almost triple the number that occurred in 2001.”

Right now, Multnomah County has a sharps collection box on the East Bank Esplanade and a sharps exchange program for drug users, but how effective are they? What about those who use needles and throw them on the ground in parks and sidewalks? What about those who carry HIV or hepatitis C and share needles?

The sharps exchange program isn’t as effective as it could be: People regularly find used needles, so often that Multnomah County’s Syringe Disposal Page gives the public instructions on what to do with found syringes. Highlighted, with a picture, is the one drop box in Multnomah County. Yes, it is in a high-traffic area, but one site for all of Multnomah County seems less than effective. The instructions on how to handle and dispose of sharps found in parks and other public places shows a need for serious concern; discarded needles are dangerous when left out in public.

In addition to issues with sharps disposal, few programs are available to help addicts get treatment or overdose care without the worry of legal ramifications. This past April, Governor Kate Brown signed a bill making possession of hard drugs for personal use a misdemeanor rather than a felony for first-time offenders, which is a step in the right direction.

However, it is just one step. While the new law helps the issue of criminalization for first time offenders, what happens to addicts who are caught multiple times? According to Oregon Live, the law only protects first time offenders. Jail time is not a treatment for drug addiction.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Addiction changes the brain in fundamental ways, disturbing a person’s normal hierarchy of needs and desires…The resulting compulsive behaviors that override the ability to control impulses despite the consequences are similar to hallmarks of other mental illnesses.” It is considered deplorable to arrest someone for any other mental illness. Why arrest those who have addictions?

Instead of perpetuating the idea of jail time, the answer may lie in the treatment of addiction as a medical complaint, rather than a criminal one. The Drug Policy Alliance explains on its website the benefits of supervised injection facilities, or SIF.

While giving drug addicts a place to do their drugs seems counterproductive, the establishment of a SIF doesn’t actually encourage the use of injectables. The goal of a SIF is to give addicts a safe, supervised space to inject drugs, out of public exposure and with sharps disposal and other services such as treatment options, clean needles to prevent the spread of disease and medical help in the case of overdose.

Currently across the globe there are roughly 100 of these facilities housed in 66 cities, and the program has made measurable progress. SIFs have demonstrated success and benefits on several levels, including a reduction in HIV and hepatitis C cases, deadly overdoses and public use of needles.

Cities with SIFs have also seen an increase in the number of people who seek addiction treatment. With the success of SIFs shown in other cities, the question is why wouldn’t Portland want its own?

Our current practice of throwing drug addicts in jail is not working. Just like any other mental disorder, addicts need treatment rather than punishment. The use of SIFs has proven to work in many other countries; the closest to us is in Vancouver, BC.

Perhaps it is time we look to other countries and how they handle their drug problems in order to help us improve our own. No one wants to find needles in the park or see people injecting heroin in a parking garage stairwell, but in order to fix these problems, we must look at them as medical disorders rather than crimes.

The Basket is an ongoing column by Sarah Alderson.