In the United States, most drugs are currently illegal. Some people are pushing to legalize certain drugs, such as marijuana. Others believe that it would be best to just decriminalize drugs like heroin. There are other people who believe that anyone who uses a drug deserves severe punishment.
While the term was first used in the 1980s, but the idea of harm reduction is a lot older. The term originally referenced the goal to stop the spread of hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS through gay sex and intravenous drug use, but now it refers to many other policies. Harm reduction polices are marked by a few key characteristics: They are already public policy, or they are public ally supported actions. Harm reduction is aimed at reducing the risk of harm to the doer of the action, other people, and/ or social and economic costs. In most cases, harm reduction is focused on practices that are socially unacceptable.
Prescription heroin is an example of a harm reduction policy. With prescription heroin, a person who is addicted to heroin finds a clinic. At the clinic, a doctor will prescribe the person a certain amount of heroin to get them through the day or the next couple of hours. Prescription heroin helps reduce the risk of overdose and ensures that the heroin is pure rather than mixed with other substances, making it a harm reduction policy.
Punishment is an action aimed at reducing an unwanted behavior and is often aimed at giving someone what they deserve. Punishment is made possible through the laws set in place by society. Currently, most drugs are illegal and criminal in the United States, making the sale, possession, or usage of them punishable. Sometimes, being caught with drugs will lead to only a fine. Other times, being caught can lead to a long prison sentence.
In the past, judges were able to determine the sentence of a person caught with drugs. Recently, mandatory minimum sentences were introduced that took away that ability. Another more recent method of punishing people who use drugs are drug courts. These courts specialize in drug laws. They mix punishment with other methods of treating drug addiction, such as rehabilitation.
Some people argue against harm reduction policies for many reasons. One of these arguments is that these policies send the wrong message. In the case of prescription heroin, the policy may show that drug addiction is no big deal since we allow a medical professional to facilitate drug use. Another argument is that harm reduction encourages the behavior that society wants to stop. Again, with prescription heroin, people who are addicted to drugs are allowed to use heroin freely and have no incentive to stop.
This does not need to be the case. Harm reduction policies can and should be paired with other treatments like rehabilitation. It also is not the case that harm reduction policies increase the overall number of drug users. Additionally, harm reduction policies help to significantly cut off the spread of hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS. Finally, medically-assisted harm reduction drug treatments can reduce mortality rates by more than half.
Punishment comes with some positive attributes. For one, punishment can help to reduce harmful behaviors. This works best when the punishment comes down directly after a bad behavior is committed and when paired with positive reinforcement. Punishment also helps people to feel as if justice has been served and that a person is getting what they deserve. Prison time can be very beneficial to some people, especially when the prison focuses on rehabilitation.
Punishment also comes with problems. For one, punishments are only effective when they are administered directly after an undesired behavior has been done. Prison systems are not effective without rehab added in. Finally, the current punishments for opioids disproportionately affect racial minority citizens, while treatment is most often given to the racial majority citizens.
In dealing with drug addiction, there are two main methods with which to end the problem. Some people prefer punishment, while others prefer harm reduction and treatment. It is not impossible to mix these methods together, but it would be hard because drug addiction creates a very emotional response in many people. Ultimately, society will have to come together someday to find a solution that helps the most people, whether through punishment, harm reduction, or a mix.
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