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I Have Watched People Killed By Our Insane Drug Policies

Needle exchange programs save lives. Why are they still controversial?

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SEP Federal policy history:

In 1989, a policy rider added to the Labor Health
and Human Services Appropriations Bill banned the use of federal
funds for SEPs, stating that “No funds…shall be used to carry out any
program of distributing sterile needles or syringes for the hypodermic
injection of any illegal drug.” In 2009, Congress ended the ban by
allowing local communities to use federal funds for syringe exchange
provided that local law enforcement and health authorities did not deem
a site “inadmissible.”

In December, 2011, the Labor, Health and Human Services
Appropriations bill reinstated the obsolete pre-2009 ban on use
of federal funds for SEPs without any scientific basis.  

Statue of Sherlock Holmes in Edinburgh
Statue of Sherlock Holmes in Edinburgh

 

In order to understand legislative roadblocks, we first have to confront societal attitudes surrounding drug use and addiction, which may be changing toward marijuana, but have not lessened toward IDUs—who are labelled "junkies."

Ironically, the famous literary character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, "Sherlock Holmes," was an addict and injected cocaine and morphine.

Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel-piece and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle, and rolled back his left shirt-cuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined arm-chair with a long sigh of satisfaction.

"It is cocaine," he said, "a seven-per-cent solution. Would you care to try it?"
-  Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of Four (1890)

The fictional Holmes character—aristocratic, intellectual, white and a force for justice, is the antithesis of what is now the stigmatized, criminalized, sinful (and often racialized) "junkie."

Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict (originally titled Junk, later released as Junky) is a novel by American beat generation writer  William S. Burroughs, published initially under the pseudonym  William Lee in 1953
Novel by American beat generation writer
William S. Burroughs, published initially under the pseudonym
 William Lee in 1953

 

In his  case for legalizing heroin Jeffrey Rogers Hummel details the historical background in the shift to criminalization.

What group of currently illegal drugs did affluent, middle-age women in 19th century America widely favor? What drugs were also used in teething syrups for babies and as a cure for alcoholism? And what drugs were banned, not because of any demonstrated health hazard, but because of a congruence of special interests and anti-Chinese racism? And what drugs were first banned by the national government, not as a result of any conditions in this country, but in response to obscure international events occurring half way around the globe nearly a century ago?

The answer is the opiates: heroin, morphine, and opium.

Over time, heroin and cocaine use and injection became associated with deviant, anti-social behavior, beatniks (William Burroughs), jazz musicians (see Shirley Clarke's  "The Connection") and blacks, and criminalization began the process of the  war on drugs becoming a war on people, particularly those in communities of color.

Hollywood played a role in the junkie stereotyping, with films like  The Man with the Golden Arm and The Panic in Needle Park. International films followed, like  Trainspotting.

Conservative religious groups contribute to the shaming and definition of drug use as sinful. They are self-righteous in the casting of stones. From my perspective, if anything is "immoral," it is our current drug laws.  

Today's abscess riddled, track-marked, petty-thieving, walking skeletons seen emerging from shooting galleries, or wandering the streets looking to "cop," are a far cry from Sherlock Holmes. As a society we have created the problem, and as long as drug use and addiction are viewed and treated as sinful, shameful, immoral and criminal, the toll on users and society will be weighty.  

 
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