Amy Winehouse: Reflections from Two Drug Policy Activists
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Like many of you, we heard the sad news about Amy Winehouse's death on Facebook. The news spread quickly. Her friend Russell Brand immediately issued an incredible tribute to her which was one of the most widely discussed responses to her sudden death. Most people immediately assumed that a drug overdose must have taken Amy's life. We don't know how she died, and on some level, it doesn't really matter. She was young, talented and apparently haunted with struggles none of us will ever understand. She used drugs. And now she's gone.
We have worked at the Drug Policy Alliance for many years and spend most days thinking about drugs, our country's drug policies and the people whose lives are impacted by them. We spend most days advocating for, and trying to help, people just like Amy. Here are some of our reflections on the tragic death of Amy Winehouse.
Abstinence isn't always achievable for everyone. We know some people will fall short of this goal, despite everyone wanting to see them succeed. Even people with virtually unlimited resources and support, like Amy Winehouse, will sometimes fail to live up to their own hopes for sobriety. We need as many potential solutions on the table as possible, including things that reduce the risks of accidental fatal overdose, like the overdose reversal medication naloxone and physician-monitored prescribed heroin maintenance programs. Amy's drug use and struggles with addiction have been in the news for years. As recently as May she was in treatment. Unfortunately, treatment is not a silver bullet and relapse is a common, if frustrating, part of recovery.
There's an Overdose Crisis in the United States and Abroad
People usually hear about overdose when it happens to a celebrity like Heath Ledger or Chris Farley. Yet overdose is a silent killer that has quickly become one of the leading causes of accidental death in the United States. Nationally, in 2007 (the most recent data available) over 27,000 people died from accidental overdoses. In NY and 16 other states, overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death, even passing car fatalities. More Americans now die from an accidental drug overdose than from HIV/AIDS.
That's the bad news. The good news is that most drug overdoses are preventable. Solutions to the crisis exist; cost-neutral and cost-effective measures such as Good Samaritan 911 laws and expanded access to the lifesaving overdose reversal medication naloxone help reduce overdose deaths.
Just last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York signed a Good Samaritan 911 bill that will save thousands of lives by helping reduce overdose death by allowing people who are witnessing an overdose to call 911 without fear of being prosecuted. New York now joins states like New Mexico and Washington in passing these laws, but we need these laws in every state.
People Need Better Access to Effective Treatment
We need to invest in better and more widely available drug treatment. Many people would be shocked to discover that there's virtually nowhere left in the United States where a person addicted to heroin can call and be admitted that same day to a long-term in-patient drug treatment program free of charge. We need to eliminate these barriers to addiction treatment.
We urgently need to step up our commitment to making proven medical interventions such as methadone and similar drug therapies more widely available. It's nonsensical to believe that most people dependent on drugs like OxyContin or heroin will magically quit and become drug free overnight just because it's now harder to find them. Simply reducing access to certain drugs doesn't address the underlying addiction so many people struggle with. "Clamping down" on drug availability simply encourages people switch from one drug to another. Even our drug czar acknowledges this is true. It's a primary reason why we're seeing a surge in heroin use and overdose lately.