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January 7, 2010 -- Huffington Post (US)

OpEd: The Deadly Ignorance Of "Drug Warriors"

By Norm Stamper, Retired Seattle police chief, member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

The New York Post last weekend ran an article entitled "Heroin for Dummies." It's a reference to the 16-page pamphlet, "Take Charge Take Care," published (two years ago) by the New York City health department. The pamphlet's purpose in reaching out to heroin addicts is to save lives and prevent disease. But you'd think, judging from the panic-stricken, patently ignorant statements of New York's drug warriors, that the city's real agenda is to put heroin in baby formula.

With it's cutesy subtitle, "City flier 'smacks' of lunacy," and its opening sentence, "Here's the latest smack on taxpayers," the piece could have been written in 1930 by the nation's first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Henry "Reefer Madness" Anslinger.

But there's no humor in hysteria and that's precisely what DEA's John Gilbride, the city's own "drug czar," Bridget Brennan and the city council's chair of public safety Peter Vallone (D-Queens) are peddling.

"To suggest there is a method of using [heroin] that alleviates the dangers, that's very disturbing," said Gilbride.

"No matter how many times or how clean the needle is, it's still poison that you're putting in your veins," said Brennan.

"It's sick," said Vallone. He went on to describe the pamphlet as a "tremendous misuse of city funds," and pledged to do what he could to end it. "It sends a message to our youth: give it a try."

Oh, please.

I have no doubt these public officials mean well but they've obviously not done their homework. And their ignorance, should it result in influencing a reversal of this splendid program will cost lives. Guaranteed.

A person addicted to heroin needs the drug as much as a diabetic needs insulin. How he or she gets it is problematic, a function of our spectacularly failed policy of prohibition. But get he or she will get it, and use it. How it's administered means the difference between life and death.

I spent a good deal of time with heroin addicts in six Australian cities on a recent trip there. I visited a supervised injection site in Sydney, clean needle and syringe programs throughout the country, a "one stop" methadone treatment clinic. I listened to testimonials, saw firsthand some of the results of the impressive harm reduction efforts I'd been reading about not just in Australia but in Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Vancouver, B.C., the Netherlands. And New York City.

Down Under, I heard from addicts who, because they were taught how to effectively and hygienically administer the drug (in part through pamphlets virtually identical to New York's), are now living safer and healthier lives. Which is to say, they've learned how to reduce the risk of collapsed veins, pus-filled abscesses, and deadly blood-borne pathogens such as HIV and hepatitis.

Those addicted are still at risk, of course. And so is the broader community. Ideally, we would legalize, tax, regulate and control heroin and all other drugs. And use a substantial portion of the substantial revenues generated thereby to fund prevention and treatment.

But until we find the will and the wisdom to do that, outreach programs such as New York's will continue, beyond any doubt, to alleviate suffering. And save lives.

By the way, Mr. Vallone, any kid who picks up one of those bright yellow pamphlets is most unlikely, by reading it, to be drawn to heroin. "Take Charge Take Care" reflects implicitly on the misery and heartache that characterizes the lives of many of the people the Post has chosen to ridicule and dehumanize.

New Yorkers must not let these modern Anslingers rule the day.

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