For decades, discussions and debates have raged nationally and locally over drug control policy.
Some say it'll take an all-out war on drugs to deal with the problems of abuse, addiction and the related criminal activity that supports distribution networks and helps the customer base feed its habit.
Some say legalization is the key; take away the criminal aspect of the problem, provide medical treatment to those afflicted with addiction and the violence, theft and prostitution associated with addiction will fade.
Eliminate the problem at its source by locking up the dealers and treating their customers is a strategy espoused by some.
Others maintain the way to go is attack the problem using a market strategy. Give the users long sentences and the dealers won't have anyone who'll buy their wares.
These ideas, in variation and combination, have been tried in different parts of the country over the years; some communities have tried more than one strategy.
Generally, the problem is treated primarily as a law enforcement issue. The public health component of the problem is often acknowledged, but public health efforts to deal with it generally take a back seat to law enforcement efforts.
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So far nothing has worked, as evidenced by the situation at the Harford County Detention Center. Sheriff Jesse Bane and a fair number of his predecessors have long lamented that intoxication – often intoxication involving illegal drugs – is at least part of the reason many people are in jail. The charge may be assault, but the trigger may well have been intoxication.
Also there's the matter of the substantial heroin problem that has afflicted Harford County, off and on (though mostly on) for going on 20 years. Harford County's rate of heroin related deaths is among the worst in Maryland, according to the sheriff and Joe Ryan of the county's office of drug control policy.
The sheriff's office and the Harford County Health Department are poised this spring to move more strongly in the direction of treating the problem as a health issue. At the jail, the sheriff's office will be working with opiate addicted inmates using a drug treatment regiment that blocks the effects of opiates and alcohol for 30 days. Presumably, once an inmate is released – and if he or she agrees to have the anti-opiate drug administered – there will be a month during which staying clean will be a bit easier.
The health department's program, which is running concurrent to, but unrelated to, the one at the jail, will result in emergency medical personnel being able to administer a prescription drug that counteracts the effects of heroin and other opiates. The goal of this program is to prevent drug overdose deaths.
It remains to be seen what, if anything, can be done to deal with all the ill effects wrought by abuse of intoxicants, be they legal or not. What is clear, however, is the efforts made to date have saved relatively few people from the ravages of addiction, even as the underground business of dealing in illicit drugs continues to be a growth industry.
The new efforts in Harford County may not work, but at least the people in positions of responsibility have recognized the long-used methods of dealing with the problem are yielding lackluster results and something different is needed.