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Reducing the Harm of America's Drug Problem

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The use and abuse of non-prescription drugs has been a problem in America since colonial times. Historically, the reaction to this problem has been the enforcement of prohibition laws and providing total abstinence education. This has resulted in big business in America; according to the United States Office of National Drug Control Policy, the federal government spent $19.2 billion dollars in 2003 on the war on drugs (1). Unfortunately, the abstinence based education and prohibition laws that are incorporated in the war on drugs have been wholly ineffective in slowing the demand for illicit drugs, and have had the opposite effects of driving up demand, street value, and drug-related crimes. The U.S. war on drugs bases its success on a decrease, and eventual eradication of the prevalence of drug use, a goal that has yet to be met. Detroit chief of police Jerry Oliver, in a 2002 interview with ABC news, said "Clearly, we're losing the war on drugs in this country [and] it's insanity to keep doing the same thing over and over again" (qtd. in Stossel). As the war on drugs continues to fail and cost this country billions of dollars, it has become clear that a new approach to the problem is needed. By changing the focus from trying to decrease the overall use of drugs to focusing on decreasing the negative side effects (both personal and societal) of drug use, our country will finally be able to make significant steps forward in our drug problem. This approach is known as harm reduction.

Harm reduction is a multi-faceted philosophy that includes various strategies to help lessen the negative impact of drug abuse on our society. These negative impacts include death, disease, suffering and crime. One of the basic assumptions which harm reduction is based on is "there has never been, is not now, and never will be a drug-free society" (Drug Policy Alliance). Some of the approaches endorsed by harm reduction are science-based, rather than scare tactic education, treatment for drug addicts instead of imprisonment, and the reduction of health risks for addicts still actively using drugs. The programs which have grown out of these ideals will not only reduce the cost of the drug war through reduction of imprisonment and law enforcement costs, but will reduce the spread of diseases associated with drug use such as HIV/AIDS.

While abstinence based education has become the accepted form of teaching young people about the dangers of drugs, these programs have also drawn wide criticism because of their failure to make any real difference in youth drug use. According to Mathea Falco, "Many schools rely on programs which have not been evaluated, or worse yet, have been found to have no impact. In 1988, a review of 350 different school programs found that only 33 had any valid evaluation data, while just three programs reported reductions in tobacco, alcohol or drug use" (qtd. in Rosenbaum). One of the most prolific abstinence based education programs is DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education). The program, founded in 1983, places police officers in classrooms to provide training to help youth recognize the dangers of drug use, resist peer pressure to try drugs, and focuses on the importance of avoiding drug use of any kind. In 2002, a study funded by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America found that 48% of the teen population has tried illegal drugs (United States). Abstinence based education programs ultimately imply and teach false information: that a single use of any number of drugs can kill a child or leave them addicted. Once these children enter their teen years, the numbers presented by the Partnership imply that it is likely they are going to be exposed to drugs. Once they try drugs or see others try them, if they do not see the outcomes taught to them as immediately evident, they become mistrustful of all the other information that was taught to them. This renders the entire program useless. In 2001, the U.S. Surgeon General called DARE "ineffective", and the head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse called the program just one of many anti-drug programs which do not work (Zernike). However, the flawed curriculums are still being taught in schools around the country.

Harm reduction calls for factual, scientific education to replace the education methods that are being used today that have been proven unsuccessful. William Miller, a program director of the youth substance abuse facility Berkshire Farm Center, believes that when teenagers are presented with science-based information and choose to remain drug free because of it, they are more likely to remain drug free (Myers). Information on individual drugs is presented in an unbiased manner; both the good effects and bad effects are brought up and discussed. Because no frightening material is presented, no glamour is attached to the drugs, and false information is not provided, course material is never discredited by the children's personal experiences.

While education is the most important resource in addressing drug use in children, adults dealing with addiction need proactive treatment options that will help minimize the harm they are causing themselves until they can choose to become drug free. One of the biggest health concerns for drug addicts, specifically IV drug users, is the spread of HIV/AIDS. Many IV drug users are unable or unwilling to discontinue use. Needle exchange programs have been working for years to reduce the spread of infectious diseases among these drug users by allowing them to exchange used needles for new clean ones. These programs are also beneficial because they provide critical contact between otherwise hard to reach drug users and outreach services. If clean needles are available free of charge to drug users, they will be less likely to share dirty needles and spread disease. In research conducted by the Canadian Harm Reduction Network, 60 to 100 percent of worldwide heterosexual HIV infection is related to IV drug use, and 40 percent of those infected users are in a relationship with a non-IV drug user (Diane Riley & Pat O'Hare). Needle exchange programs therefore not only slow the infection of HIV/AIDS among IV drug users, but will also reduce the rate of transmission to non-users. Needle exchange programs have helped reduce the rate of HIV infection among drug injectors in New York City from 60 percent in 1990 to approximately 15 percent in 2004, according to Allan Clear, the executive director of the Harm Reduction Coalition (Clear). Unfortunately, needle exchange programs are currently excluded from federal funding by Congress, despite the clear benefits. Until these programs gain federal funding, they will continue to run under private funding, making access to these sites limited to only areas where funding has been obtainable. Many addicts without



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