We should help our neighbors struggling with substance use, not jail them

Our state is in the grip of an opioid epidemic that affects every type of person, from doctors to coders to farm workers. Last year alone, we lost 2,500 of our neighbors in Washington to overdoses. We owe the families of these victims the truth: Criminalizing drug use only wastes valuable resources that we should instead dedicate to modernizing treatment.

As a former deputy sheriff and narcotics officer, I know first-hand how counterproductive criminalization is for people who have substance use issues. In fact, many times these charges would drive people further into illicit activity as they struggled to find housing and gainful employment after serving their sentences. That is why our state should end arrests for simple substance possession. At a cost of nearly $20,000 to book, jail, and sentence each person arrested for drug use, this strategy has failed for five decades to stem a crisis that is fundamentally one about public health, not crime.

Arrest and incarceration — even if temporary and even if for possession of a small amount of an illicit substance — can be devastating. A person may lose their job as a result of missed work, be unable to get future employment because of an arrest record, lose access to student loans, be rejected from housing, and face disqualification from public assistance.

In short, all the things that someone most needs when struggling to fight a substance abuse problem are denied them once they are found to have a substance abuse problem. If these individuals are sentenced, they may lose touch with their parents, partners, kids, and friends, causing new traumas that underlie addiction to ripple outward to even more people throughout our communities. This cycle in turn damages our community’s trust in law enforcement, too.

A bitter irony is that this process often fails to stop people from using drugs. Fentanyl and other toxic substances like the synthetic cannabinoid K2 are regularly smuggled into our corrections system as liquid on tiny sheets of paper. If it’s a struggle to stop drugs from flowing into some of the most highly surveilled and policed locations on the planet, it is imminently reasonable to think our strategy might better focus on public health investments outside of prison walls.

Instead of criminalizing substances, we should consider how our failed drug policies have denied us potential treatments for addiction. For example, both Seattle and Port Townsend have decriminalized naturally occurring entheogens, such as psilocybin mushrooms and ibogaine. A recent study of 44,000 Americans in the U.S. Journal of Psychopharmacology has found that a single use of psilocybin mushrooms is associated with a 40% reduced risk of opioid use disorder — and a new study from Canada suggests an even stronger benefit. Ibogaine, an African tree shrub, has been made legally accessible in countries such as Costa Rica and New Zealand for its proven benefits for treating alcoholism and opioid addiction.

Our officers are already stretched thin, and our communities are yearning bitterly for an alternative to more criminalization. We deserve to see this public health crisis of addiction met with modern solutions, not more of the 50 years of failed policy that brought us where we are today.

Darren Ullmann served as a deputy with the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office for two decades, including as commander of its Narcotics Task Force and an undercover narcotics officer. You can reach him at darrenullmann@yahoo.com

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