New drug laws could worsen the opioid crisis. Connecticut can do better.
By Kenyatta Thompson and Lorenzo Jones
Last month, the Connecticut legislature ended its 2019 session with a package of bills aimed at reducing fatal overdoses and drug-related harm in the state. One positive step is the inclusion of $8 million in funding by Gov. Ned Lamont in the state budget to increase the establishment of medication-based treatment for opioid use disorder in correctional settings.
But much of what passed was reactionary to the overdose crisis rather than a proactive approach based on what was learned from the failed drug war.
On the problem of fentanyl, the legislature chose a classic drug war approach: criminalization. Act Increasing Criminal Penalties for the Sale of Fentanyl, passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Lamont, increases penalties for selling fentanyl. History, research, and common sense has shown that arresting and incarcerating people who use and/or deal drugs is not effective in reducing drug use or drug-related crime. Further, anyone who has used drugs knows that the “line” between user and dealer is nearly non-existent, as most people who use drugs also provide them to someone else in one way or another.
For those that survived the days of crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparities, the story of criminalization is all too familiar: mass incarceration and other suffering embedded within communities that are hit the hardest by addiction, disparities in services, a broken safety net. Consistently, those communities are black, brown, and experiencing poverty, like rural white communities in Connecticut. Yet when confronted with a drug-related issue like the overdose epidemic, the drug war has a funny way of making people forget the past: every single House member of Connecticut’s Black & Puerto Rican Caucusvoted yes to increasing penalties for fentanyl. In the Senate, the bill passed with a vote of 33-3, where the only no vote from the BPRC came from Sen. Winfield, D-New Haven.
In a state where we have been hit hard by the overdose crisis, increasing criminalization on those who possess drugs with fentanyl in them is not the solution. Fentanyl does not come from Connecticut. People who are dealing with addiction and mental health issues may be in possession of an illicit drug and be unaware that it contains fentanyl.
Another piece of legislation that passed, An Act Concerning Opioid Use Disorder, would establish a statewide prescription drug monitoring program designed to reduce the number of overdoses associated with prescription opioids and other controlled narcotics through an electronic monitoring program. On the surface, this seems like a logical step for the state to take. However, the problem with this legislation is that there are mixedreviews supporting the efficacy of such programs. Even more, there is substantialresearch that links these laws to increases in fatal overdoses.
These types of interventions have pushed people away from prescribed substances to unpredictable illicit ones manufactured on the street. And there has been an alarming trend of chronic pain patients whose conditions are managed safely with opioid analgesics but who have been force-tapered or cut off from these medications as a result of such programs. Limiting access to opioids through restrictive laws force many to the illicit market or, more tragically, to suicide.
The legislature also passed a bill to study protocols and feasibility of involuntary commitment of people who experienced an overdose. Evidence shows that coerced, involuntary treatment and the associated confinement are both ineffective for long term recovery and dangerous for overdose risk due to reduced tolerance. One study found that people who were involuntarily committed were more than twice as likely to experience a fatal overdose as those who completed voluntary treatment.
The legislature should have taken a different approach. Health-based policies and interventions that we know work include low-threshold, immediate access to life-saving medications like methadone and buprenorphine; widespread distribution of naloxone and drug-testing resources like fentanyl test strips; syringe access and harm reduction programs; community organizing; and improved access to healthcare.
Though there were a number of encouraging bills that passed through the legislature this session, many of those that related to opioid use represent a step backward for the state. It is alarming that these bills are being touted as victories, despite overwhelming evidence demonstrating the harms they will cause. If we continue on this path, we will usher in another iteration of the failed drug war.
Kenyatta Thompson is a community organizer for the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice, and Lorenzo Jones is the co-executive director and co-founder of the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice. The Katal Center works to end mass incarceration and the war on drugs and is headquartered in Hartford.