The Human Perspective: Seeing Drug Policy through the Eyes of Substance Use Disorder
One of the most provocative and insightful voices in drug policy conversations is not a researcher, caregiver, or policy-maker. Instead, as NPR reported, it’s a 47-year-old woman whose substance misuse started at age 13 and who has been unable to live sober long-term.
Louise Vincent’s story is another reminder that substance use disorder (SUD) is a disease, not a choice.
The risk of moving backward
That understanding of SUD as a behavioral health challenge helped shift public perception and policy toward treatment, diversion programs, and harm reduction. I fear the pendulum may swing back. On one level, it’s understandable: there’s frustration with the flood of fentanyl and xylazine into the illicit drug market, the alarming overdose numbers, and the visible impact of the drug epidemic in communities. There’s a growing reactive – though faulty – misperception that compassionate approaches aren’t working and that we need to get back to punishing use. Louise told NPR that’s what she experienced when she started using drugs. “What they told me was if I couldn’t get [off drugs], I wasn’t doing something right, and that’s not true.”
We’re at a crossroads. After more than 50 years, there’s no logical reason to assume bringing back the policies of the “war on drugs” is going to yield different results. On the other hand, bold experiments in decriminalization, such as those in Oregon, haven’t gone as hoped.
Harm reduction and treatment begin with dignity and respect
Louise’s story reminds us that drug policy is not an abstraction. As we see every day at BCCS, it’s about treating people with dignity and respect and reaffirming that every life matters. According to NPR:
[Louise] Vincent has emerged as one of the leading voices in the U.S. pushing to humanize and rally help for drug users like herself, even when they’re not willing or able to live sober.
“We have made it OK to abandon people who use drugs. We tell an entire group of people it’s OK if they die,” she said.
Lousie advocates for harm reduction, including access to healthcare, needle exchange programs, drop-in centers, and outreach that connects people and services. That aligns directly with what we’re doing at BCCS. That’s also the same approach the American Medical Association and the American Society of Addiction Medicine endorsed.
Harm reduction and substance use disorder treatment are two sides of the same effort. As we help our clients through their substance use disorder and behavioral health challenges, we recognize that each person’s recovery journey is different. Harm reduction programs tell those with substance use disorder that they’re not abandoned and that help is there when they’re ready.
The danger of going backward
Policies that move away from harm reduction or that bring back the dehumanizing tactics used during the crack cocaine epidemic will further stigmatize substance misuse. The stigma and fear will push victims back into the shadows. It’ll become harder for BCCS and other treatment programs to reach those who need help. The drug epidemic’s victims will become more vulnerable to overdose, HIV, and hepatitis, and the dangers and hardships they face on the streets.
Louise summed it up when she said, “I believe people who use drugs deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.” At BCCS, dignity and respect are the cornerstone of our caring and compassionate approach. It’s a prerequisite to helping our clients stabilize their lives and move toward a successful future. We need your continued support.