Biden Embraces Some Harm Reduction Policies — But Doubles Down on Drug War

While the war on drugs is not over under President Joe Biden, it is changing. Federal policy makers have had to adopt harm reduction policies since the overdose crisis, 40 years ago when underground clinics and activist groups began providing safe syringes to drug users. provenTo prevent overdose deaths and spread of disease.

The Biden administration presented a National Drug Control Strategy (NDC Strategy) to Congress last week. It calls for the expansion harm reduction services like syringe exchange programs to combat overdose. This is a grassroots win: Public health advocates and activists have fought for federal support to harm reduction for decades. This broad term refers to a wide range of evidence-based services designed to help drug users stay healthy and safe. They are offered without stigma and judgment.

Polls show that harm reduction is a popular trend broad public support, and bipartisan majorities vote that the drug war has failed. should be decriminalized. However, Biden’s support for harm reduction is not untainted. Faced with right-wing backlash, the president is simultaneously doubling down on the drug policing and anti-trafficking efforts known as the “war on drugs,” an approach that critics say has fueled widespread racial injustice, mass incarceration and a wave of drug-related deaths.

The rate of fatal drug overdoses rose under former President Trump, before reaching a record high during a pandemic that isolated drug users from harm reduction and social supports. Nearly 107,000 overdose deaths over the past year reveal that the government’s “punitive, carceral approach” to drugs is extremely harmful, according to Daliah Heller, the vice president of drug use initiatives at Vital Strategies, a group that promotes harm reduction.

“It is an approach that rests on a racist and punitive foundation with destructive and predictable consequences — filling up our prisons and jails, breaking up families and communities, and producing the worst overdose crisis in history,” Heller said in a statement.

The war against drugs is widely accepted as racist violence. George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis by police officers who tried to blame Floyd’s death on the unrelenting knees of a police officer for using drugs. Breonna Taylor was shot dead by police during a “no-knock” drug raid in Louisville, Kentucky. Their deaths sparked widespread protests and anti-Black racism. But under attack from the right Biden and Democrats in Congress refused to take steps towards decreasing police funding. Instead, they chose to do the opposite.

Biden’s “drug control” strategy reflects a shift that began during the Obama administration, when the overdose crisis was intensifying and policy makers promoted public health responses rather than relying solely on prevention and law enforcement. The results of this shift — and the government’s response to the overdose crisis more broadly — are extremely unequal. Studies show that overdose deaths in white people have slowed in certain states while overdose deaths in people of color are on the rise.

According to Grant Smith, deputy national affairs director at the Drug Policy Alliance, the rate for overdose mortality in Black people has increased by nearly 49% since 2020. Hispanic or Latinx communities, however, have seen a 40% increase in overdose mortality. The highest rate increase in mortality among all ethnicities has been observed for Native and Indigenous people.

In its drug control strategy, the Biden administration stated that these racial disparities were caused by the stigma and discrimination people of color face when seeking treatment for addiction or health care. Smith claimed that discrimination and stigma are rooted in institutions, which includes the racist drug war, which the administration is still fighting.

“This cannot continue,” Smith said in a statement. “Criminalization approaches only saddle mostly Black, Hispanic and Indigenous people with criminal legal records and often incarceration, which increases their risk for infectious diseases, overdose and death.”

The decriminalization of drugs and the people involved with them is not mentioned anywhere in Biden’s drug plan.

Despite all this, harm reduction is a major paradigm shift. This is the result of decades of grassroots activism. Harm reduction has been shown to save lives. However, the federal government has not supported syringe trades and other harm reduction programs over the years due to backlash from tough-on crime politicians.

Echoing the language of harm reductionists, the Biden administration pledges to “meet people where they are” and expand access to addiction medications, drug testing supplies, syringe exchange programs and naloxone (the opioid antidote used to reverse an overdose). Federal agencies will be directed by the administration not only to integrate harm reduction into their medical system but also to study and address barriers to addiction treatment, housing and health care for drug users.

Biden’s GOP opponents smell red meat. Despite Trump’s increasing fatal overdose rates and the fact that they have been rising over the past decade, Republicans are trying to put the overdose crisis down on Biden by mistakenly conflating the humanitarian crisis at the border of Mexico with drug trafficking. They also used racist dog whistles in an attack on harm reduction programs, including safe drinking sites for people who use drugs under medical supervision. Although Trump has not prosecuted them, they are saving lives under Biden.

Biden’s recent budget request$355 million more funding for Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), a law enforcement agency charged with waging a drug war already underway enjoysA budget of $3.28 billion. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, this funding, if approved by Congress, would represent the largest increase in DEA spending ever since the 1980 drug war.

Despite the existence of a drug war for five decades around the world, the United States has never been able to end the illicit drug trade. The rate of fatal drug overdoses increased after the crackdown on prescription drugs in the U.S., leaving patients in pain and pushing people to use fentanyl and other illegal benzodiazepines. These drugs are fueling the overdose crisis along with alcohol and methamphetamine.

Experts warn against law enforcement efforts to stop fentanyl supply at borders and on the streets. will be unsuccessfulWhile taking the drugs, people use more dangerous and unpredictableOverdose is a leading cause of death from drug overdose. Criminalization will ensure that people who are involved in drug use will continue to face punishment from police. They will be dragged into jails and prisons. drug courtsWhich? vastly increase the riskA fatal overdose can occur when a drug user is using drugs. Drug overdose is the most common cause of death among people recently released from prisons, and the third leading cause of death within the nation’s local jails, accordingThe Vera Institute of Justice

Federal efforts to decriminalize drugs possession and legalize cannabis have so far failed. However, some states have made some progress. The number of drug-related deaths in prisons and jails has risen. skyrocketed over the last decadePrison officials have largely refused addiction medication that people depend upon once they are incarcerated. After President Obama’s push to provide treatment for opioid use disorder in federal prisons failed, the Biden Administration has pledged to make drug addiction treatment available to all federal prisoner with opioid use disorder.

Heller said the administration’s turn toward harm reduction is a “step in the right direction” but more needs to be done. While some states restrict access to naloxone in certain circumstances, making the medication available over-the counter is a priority. “Robust recognition and enforcement” of anti-discrimination protections for people who use drugs is also desperately needed, Heller said.

“Current restrictions on access to medications and other life-saving services means that people continue to die unnecessarily from preventable overdose,” Heller said.