Pursuing a harm-reduction policy that includes making heroin safe and legal won’t encourage drug use.
A drug normally used to tranquilize livestock and elephants is now being ingested by human users to disastrous ends and may have contributed to a recent spate of overdoses in Cincinnati. It’s a powerful opioid called carfentanil, and is only the latest such drug with a funny name to burst onto the national scene: Fentanyl now rivals heroin as a leading cause of overdose deaths, and another drug called Opana fueled an HIV epidemic in Indiana. But as the opioid crisis cuts its widening swath across the country, an important fact often remains invisible: Heroin prohibition is driving the problem, not fixing it.
Legalizing and regulating unsavory drugs remains a controversial proposition. For many people, legalization and regulation seem to confer or imply approval. But the logic behind doing so is straightforward: the most dangerous things about opioid addiction, including ingesting drugs of unknown provenance and quality, and disastrously reorganizing one’s life to pay for a fix, are in large part byproducts of a drug’s illegal status.
Prohibiting dangerous substances has not only clearly failed to keep people from using them, it has also made the use of those substances more dangerous. And it has incentivized the rise of more dangerous opiates, because drug traffickers benefit from packing the highest level of potency into the smallest shipment at the lowest cost possible. To the extent that people who take fentanyl largely would prefer heroin, access to regulated heroin used under medical supervision would keep many from dying by overdose, and would help drive more potent narcotic interlopers like fentanyl from the market.