Commentary

The war on drugs failed. Don’t try it again.

Colorado leaders should use evidence-based public health solutions to overcome the crisis of overdose deaths

(Getty Images)

The tragic rise in overdose deaths from fentanyl and other opiates deserves urgent attention from Colorado leaders. Evidence-based harm reduction policies — such as free and widespread access to naloxone, public education regarding the risks of fentanyl, free testing supplies like fentanyl test strips, and supervised use sites — will save lives.

Paired with productive policies like low-barrier drug treatment, stable housing, and investment in community-driven overdose prevention, we can overcome this crisis and improve public health and safety in our state.

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In a widely-publicized press conference, state senator and U.S. congressional candidate Brittany Pettersen, state Sen. Kevin Priola, and Attorney General Phil Weiser announced they would take on the overdose crisis. Although public health measures received mention, they put disturbing emphasis on police enforcement and increasing prison sentences, most notably making possession of small amounts of fentanyl a felony. Pettersen even claimed they will “go after the cartels” and end the crisis by increased spending on law enforcement and prison sentences.

This surprising rhetoric would have us repeat the failed war on drugs, which since the 1980s has led to mass incarceration and the systemic racism infecting our criminal system. We do not have to imagine what happens when our government spends billions of dollars claiming to “go after the cartels.” We know.

We do not have to imagine what happens when our government spends billions of dollars claiming to “go after the cartels.” We know.

The result is not reduced overdose deaths, nor is it a reduction in drug supply. The result is aggressive racial profiling, militarized policing of poor and working-class communities, and thousands of Black, Hispanic, Indigenous, and other people of color disproportionately and systematically funneled into excessive prison sentences.

When people incarcerated for drug possession return to their communities, they do so with stigma, trauma, untreated health issues, and significant barriers to both employment and stable housing. The harm inflicted by excessive prison sentences — the economic waste, trauma and fracture — ripples through families and communities for generations to come. Meanwhile, wasted spending on incarceration drains resources from effective public health solutions such as housing and health care, and the crisis only deepens.

If prison worked, or if enforcement eliminated drug supplies, the U.S. would have seen a decrease in drug use and overdose deaths in the decades since the war on drugs began. Instead, data show that we suffer from 10 times the number of overdose deaths compared to 1990, despite billions spent on prohibition. The use and availability of fentanyl and other opiates has increased, not decreased. This trend is, at least in part, a result of the increasingly intense criminalization of drug trafficking which has driven the suppliers’ market toward more potent and easily transportable drugs such as illicitly manufactured fentanyl and fentanyl analogues.

Every overdose death is a tragedy, and too many Coloradans have been impacted by overdoses and a lack of health care for users. But let’s not be fooled. It’s easy for politicians to jump to “lock ‘em up” policies as a supposed “quick fix” to try to appease voters. We know from more than four decades of the failed war on drugs that this quick fix is a fiction. Prison and enforcement has not and will never make us safe from the risks of substance use. We need our leaders to tell the truth about this fact. We owe it to those who have lost their lives to overdose, and to those lives that can still be saved.

Communities most impacted by the overdose crisis have led effective outreach and intervention, and will continue to do so for the safety and health of Coloradans. Rather than rebranding old failed policies that will only cause more harm, our legislators and Attorney General Weiser must listen to public health advocates and the voices of marginalized communities. They must courageously focus on evidence-based public health solutions to overcome this crisis and save lives.

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David Maxted
David Maxted

David Maxted is a civil rights and criminal attorney at Maxted Law LLC.

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LaQunya Baker
LaQunya Baker

LaQunya Baker is a part-owner of Baker Oliver Simpson Law, a criminal defense law firm, and a visiting assistant professor of the practice of law at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

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Lindsey Webb
Lindsey Webb

Lindsey Webb is associate professor at Denver Law School.

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Z Williams
Z Williams

Z Williams is an activist and 2021 graduate of Denver Law School.

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