‘War on drugs’ doesn’t tackle the drug problem

The Hill - Svante Myrick and Alan Webber

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It’s not news that the overdose crisis continues to destroy lives, families and whole communities across the country. Nor is it news that the so-called “war on drugs” waged by the federal government has proven an absolute, abject failure. What is news is that cities can, must and are taking the lead in stopping the damage done both by drug use and by the drug war itself. As the Mayors of Ithaca, N.Y. and Santa Fe, N.M, we are doing just that: developing and implementing data-driven, evidence-based compassionate drug policies.

Our two cities, like communities large and small across the country, bear the burden of a half-century of disastrous drug policies that have wrought two epidemics: Mass incarceration and skyrocketing overdose deaths. Far from stemming the tide of death, the war on drugs continues to exacerbate an overdose crisis of historic proportions. People are dying because of the harms associated with drug use, yes. But they are also falling victim to the failed tactics of an expensive drug war that has operated as a program of oppression and racism.

If the United States continues to pursue a decades-long drug war, people in our communities will continue to die and suffer. As people elected to serve, we have a moral obligation to do something different, something better.

For that reason, our two cities have engaged in a Municipal Drug Strategy informed and led by those who feel the direct impact of problematic drug use and our response to it. First pioneered as a public health measure in Europe in the 1980s, Municipal Drug Strategies challenge local communities to work from a public health, racial justice and human rights framework.

That’s a far different — and far more effective approach than one that defines people who use drugs as criminals who should be punished or, at best, as people who must be helped through force and coercion.

A new Drug Policy Alliance report, Municipal Drug Strategy: Lessons in Taking Drug Policy Reform Local, describes the four components of a Municipal Drug Strategy: prevention, treatment, emergency response/public safety and harm reduction. This approach gives communities the tools they need to promote public health and safety and addresses the root causes of problematic drug use. A key condition of any Municipal Drug Strategy is the meaningful engagement of diverse local stakeholders, including government, first responders, health care providers and community leaders. 

As the report documents, the European approach has delivered spectacularly successful results. Communities there have experienced significantly lower rates of crime and problematic drug use, along with improvements in public health outcomes, including major reductions in rates of overdose, HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C.

In February 2016, Ithaca, New York made history and national news when we launched the first formal Municipal Drug Strategy in the United States. The Ithaca Plan: A Public Health and Safety Approach to Drugs and Drug Policy was the product of Ithaca’s Municipal Drug Policy Committee which consisted of leaders from local government, harm reduction and treatment organizations, law enforcement and the community. 

Only two years later, Ithaca is already seeing results, including a dramatic expansion of life-saving, gold-standard opioid agonist treatment providers, drug checking services to test for fentanyl adulteration and naloxone distribution. We have laid the groundwork for a harm reduction-based, pre-arrest diversion program called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) and Ithaca stands poised to be one of the first cities in the United States to launch a life-saving supervised consumption space. In 2018, Bloomberg Philanthropies selected Ithaca as one of 35 Champion Cities from a field of 350 cities, denoting its Municipal Drug Strategy as an innovative, data-driven, scalable and high-impact approach to the overdose crisis.

In 2018, Santa Fe followed Ithaca’s lead and formed its own Municipal Drug Strategy committee. Santa Fe is an ideal city to engage in this work; we were the second U.S. city to implement LEAD after Seattle, Washington.

A recent comprehensive evaluation of the LEAD program in Santa Fe found significant cost savings to the city, reductions in heroin use and overdose deaths, more stable housing outcomes and a reduction in arrests and time spent in jail for those actively engaged in intensive case management programs. Encouraged by these findings, Santa Fe is now identifying additional reforms to go beyond LEAD, aiming to further reduce the role of criminalization in our drug policies.

As mayors, we know that a shift away from punitive responses to drugs is possible. We know that fewer families cycle in and out of jail when people get the support they need to address the root cause of their problematic drug use, rather than being arrested simply for possessing a drug. We know the tremendous benefits of providing access to treatments such as methadone and buprenorphine in jail, supportive housing that does not turn people away based solely on their drug use, economic development opportunities such as youth employment programs and supervised consumption spaces.

We believe that cities know the contours of their own people and problems best—and are therefore best positioned to craft meaningful solutions that fit those people and address those problems. We are closer to the people and more agile in finding and implementing best practices.

U.S. cities, large and small, can stem the harms associated with both drugs and failed drug policies. We can also shift the political conversation, putting cities at the center of innovation in solving complex, large-scale, human problems.

From climate change to the overdose crisis, when the federal government fails to act — or acts in ways that are actually harmful and counter-productive — cities can and must take the lead.

Svante Myrick is mayor of Ithaca, N.Y.; Alan Webber is mayor of Santa Fe, N.M.