Blog Post

Doctors Should Save the Lives of People Who Use Drugs, Not Debate How Many Second Chances One Deserves

Widney Brown

There is something seriously wrong when doctors are blaming people who inject drugs for poor health rather than asking why government, at the local, state, and federal levels are not taking measures that are proven to protect the health of people who use drugs. And it is not because some drugs are illegal some of the time. After all, have you ever heard a doctor debate whether to do a life-saving operation on a person who was speeding and lost control of his car?

An article in the NY Times, “Injecting Drugs Can Ruin a Heart. How Many Second Chances Should a User Get?” blames people who use drugs for creating demands on the health care system and in interviews with doctors posits that they are not deserving of health care.

Since Richard Nixon launched the war on drugs in 1971 in an attempt to demonize African-Americans and anti-war activists, drug use, which should be addressed through a public health lens, has been treated primarily as a moral failure and criminal issue. The convergence of racism, policing, and punitive drug policies has already devastated many communities in the U.S.

Now, in the midst of the overdose crisis that claimed 64,000 lives in 2016, the proposed solution is to turn people who inject drugs away from the health care system as undeserving because they supposedly know the risks they are taking.

We all engage in risky behaviors.   And every day we take advantage of harm reduction solutions that mitigate those risks.  Our cars have seat belts and airbags; our foods are labeled with the content; we wear helmets when we ride our bikes.  When athletes take extreme risks and are injured, no one debates about whether care for them should take up the medical resources in our communities.

Nor, for that matter, do we hear health professionals debating whether to provide treatment to people who smoke or who eat unhealthy foods. In both cases, health professionals treat the disease and suggest support for the person to change her or his risky habits.

But when it comes to drug use, it appears that stigma, not medical ethics, may win out. What the article fails to recognize that it is stigma, not drug use that is placing people’s lives at risk.  Endocarditis isn’t caused by drug injection – it’s caused by unsterile syringes and unregulated drugs. We need the government to set up programs that allow people who inject drugs to access sterile needles and to use them in safe consumption spaces. We know that these solutions save lives and reduce demands on the health care system.

And to save even more lives and reduce the demands on the health care system we need comprehensive, evidence-based education on drugs and universal access to medication-assisted treatment for people who struggle with addiction.

What we do not need are punitive policies that throw people involved with drugs in prisons far from support and treatment.  What we do not need is the dehumanization of people involved with drugs. What we do not need is a system of policing that criminalizes communities of color. What we do not need is doctors choosing judgment over healing.

Widney Brown is the managing director of policy for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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Harm reduction