The opioid epidemic is not partisan, and the solutions are not liberal or conservative. To solve this horrific problem, we must look beyond political ideology and see facts.
Every eight minutes someone dies from an opioid-related fatality. Drug overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. With hundreds of thousands of lives at stake, this epidemic demands our immediate attention. Unfortunately, our current response to drug addiction in America stubbornly relies on obsolete practices and beliefs about addiction and recovery.
New science has revealed that opioid addiction is a chemical, DNA-driven disease of the brain, to which many people are genetically predisposed. Treating this disease with medication has been proven to save lives and improve long-term outcomes.
Yet, so many states, including Ohio, are choosing to fund incarceration over treatment. They are sending individuals suffering with addiction to prison at an exponential rate. In Ohio, prison spending has nearly tripled in the last few decades. Prisons are now overcrowded – and are projected to grow more populated in the coming years. This costs Ohio taxpayers $1.8 billion dollars a year. The largest portion of the state prison population is made up of people who committed drug offenses and addiction-related crimes.
Obviously, prisons are needed to keep dangerous people off the streets. But, it makes no sense to send people with addiction to a places with such poor records of rehabilitation — and expect them to come out better than they were when they entered the system. Studies repeatedly show that incarceration and felony convictions in response to addiction only make matters worse. People come out still suffering from addiction, often more deteriorated and saddled with felony records that prevent job and housing eligibility. This pushes economic and family stability even farther out of reach.
Ohioans have a real opportunity in November to start changing course in regard to the opioid addiction. State Issue 1 is a ballot initiative that will divert individuals struggling with addiction into community-based treatment and supervision – not incarceration. People with nonviolent, low-level drug offenses would still face sanctions at the county level. However, they would not be sent to an expensive and ineffective state prison cell.
Experts estimate Issue 1 will save roughly $100 million taxpayer dollars in prison spending annually. These savings from reduced state prison populations will go toward substance abuse treatment and support for crime victims.
Also, Ohio is not the first state to propose prioritizing treatment over incarceration. Several states have reduced penalties for drug possession and expanded options beyond state prison for low-level, nonviolent addiction-related crimes. Legislation to change drug possession penalties from felonies to misdemeanors in Utah, Connecticut, and Alaska passed with overwhelming bipartisan majorities. Additionally, voters in both California and Oklahoma passed ballot initiatives to limit incarceration for drug possession and redirect prison costs to treatment with wide support.
Fixing the broken justice system and transforming the way states address addiction deserves our immediate attention. Nationally, prison spending and correction budgets have skyrocketed, while funding for addiction and substance abuse is lagging. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), approximately 21 million people needed substance abuse treatment in 2016, yet fewer than one in five were able to access it.
In Ohio, overdose deaths continue to rise, along with the state prisons budget. But the addiction crisis cannot be resolved through over-reliance on imprisonment. Responding to drug addiction with punishment and shame will only lead to more drug-related deaths.
Through our work across the country, we are actively seeking to break down the regulatory, legislative, and ideological barriers that prevent people from accessing drug treatment and recovery medication. It would be inexcusable to deny those living with diabetes, cancer, or heart disease treatment for their illnesses. It’s equally inexcusable that people suffering from opioid addiction are denied access to treatment while the traditional justice system has repeatedly failed to resolve it.
It is time to stop wasting taxpayer dollars locking up people who are suffering from addiction. Law enforcement resources need to focus on violent and serious crimes, while states need to take real action to expand treatment for those battling addiction. Issue 1 is the type of long overdue change states must make. We urge you to vote “yes” for this initiative.
Newt Gingrich is the former Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives. Van Jones is a civil rights activist, social entrepreneur and CNN host/contributor. Together, they helped create and now lead Advocates for Opioid Recovery, a nonpartisan initiative focused on promoting evidence-based interventions that can have a dramatic impact on ending the opioid addiction and overdose crisis in this country.