We've Turned the Guns on Ourselves in the War on Drugs | Opinion

If I told you that in 2023, America will have rid itself of heroin, you'd probably assume this is a good thing. In this case, it isn't welcome news. Fentanyl—a much more powerful, more deadly drug—is taking heroin's place.

In fact, overdose deaths from fentanyl are now one the most common killers of Americans aged 18-49. In 2021, roughly 107,000 people died from drug overdose, two-thirds of which were related to fentanyl. Up to 50 times stronger than heroin, fentanyl can be fatal in very small amounts. Frightening headlines dominate the daily news: earlier this month, three adults were jailed for dealing fake oxycodone M30 pills containing fentanyl. Three teens overdosed, with one ending up in critical condition.

When faced with similar crises, American policymakers have prioritized increasing punishments to deter use and shrink supply. This "War on Drugs" has simply made the problem worse, destroying communities, while black market drugs become even more potent and continue to take lives.

A Neighborhood Destroyed by Drugs
A frayed American flag hangs from a door in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The area has been swamped by drug use. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Fentanyl's explosion in popularity among American drug users in the past few years can be traced to a perfect storm of addiction, basic economics, and ineffective government action. As millions became addicted to opiates like OxyContin in 1990s and 2000s, the U.S. failed to focus on treatment options—instead cracking down on doctors and pharmaceutical companies and drastically reducing the amount of prescription opiates available. As legal opiates became harder to obtain, many turned to the black market—and traffickers from China and Mexico were eager to meet this new demand.

While heroin requires fields and poppy plants to be produced, fentanyl can be created synthetically—a faster process with no need for expensive and time-intensive farming. Its strength also means less is needed to get the user high, so it can be transported much more profitably than other drugs. Not only that, but because it was originally created as a hospital anesthetic, its effect wears off quickly—leaving "dopesick" users coming back frequently for more.

Over the past few years, policymakers have demanded we get "tough" on fentanyl, proposing bills to create mandatory minimum sentences, increase prison time, and even allow the death penalty for someone who provides fentanyl that results in an overdose. For over 100 years, the playbook has been prioritize punishment over treatment and for over 100 years, that playbook has failed.

Prohibition in the 1920s led to the criminalization of alcohol use. Legislators believed that criminalizing the product would reduce the negative consequences of its use. While Prohibition potentially led to some modest reductions in alcohol consumption initially, the U.S. saw a massive rise in arrests and incarceration. Meanwhile, organized crime flourished, bringing significant rises in violent crime—particularly in large cities. Prohibition also removed a safer, more regulated alcohol market. Harmful additives were mixed in by bootleggers to "cut" the product and increase profits. The U.S. government mandated poisonous additives for industrial alcohol to deter drinking of it. Thousands of Americans died during Prohibition due to poisonous alcohol.

At around the same time, the Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914 was passed with the intention of regulating a legal heroin and cocaine market in the U.S.—one that was brought about in part due to injuries and trauma from the Civil War and irresponsible marketing of the drugs (sound familiar?). While doctors were successfully reducing the harmful use of these drugs, federal agents began arresting and imprisoning users and the doctors treating them. Very quickly, those struggling with addiction were criminals. Illegal organizations filled the market with more expensive and dangerous alternatives. Violence and our prisons swelled.

In response to the crack cocaine epidemic, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 brought about many of the ineffective and draconian drug sentencing laws we see today. This law, just like the others, did bring some disruption to drug markets initially, but as we see with the rise of fentanyl and record-setting drug deaths, that "success" was short-lived, led to stronger drugs, and exacerbated the problem.

Even though we spend roughly $46 billion each year to enforce drug prohibition, data shows that drug use fluctuations have no consistent response to enforcement efforts. In other words, we're not only wasting money, we're wasting people's lives.

As new laws criminalizing addiction are pushed at the local, state, and federal level, those suffering with addiction still cannot access treatment. According to Rahul Gupta, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, less than 10 percent of people with substance use disorders are able to access rehabilitation. Evidence-based treatment in jails and prisons is disappointingly sparse.

In states with policies that shift the focus from criminalization, the results have been promising. Some studies have shown that opioid deaths decline in states that legalize cannabis. Legal access to fentanyl test strips and naloxone is also key. A survey of drug users in Rhode Island found that participants who used fentanyl test strips took steps to protect themselves if fentanyl was detected—discarding the substance, ensuring someone else was present during its use, or having naloxone available in case of an overdose. Staying alive is the first step to overcoming addiction and living a meaningful life.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. We cannot incarcerate our way out of this problem. We have tried and we have failed. If policymakers truly desire to curb the fentanyl epidemic, they will learn from past mistakes, stop grandstanding, and fund solutions that deal with the root causes of addiction.

Greg Glod is an Americans for Prosperity fellow focused on public safety and criminal justice reform and the co-host of Lava for Good's The War On Drugs podcast.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.