Decriminalization next step in recovery for Huntington, state

It may come as no surprise that the state of West Virginia, Cabell County in particular, has a drug problem.

In May, West Virginia Public Broadcasting began a series on heroin overdoses and addiction throughout the state. One of its first releases was a data map showing the counties most impacted by heroin. The county that came in at the top of the list? Cabell.

According to the Department of Health and Human Resources, Cabell County, along with Berkley County, had 109 deaths from heroin alone since 2001 – 86 more than the next county. Along with that, comes an increase in drug-related diseases. The Office of Drug Control Policy reports that West Virginia is one of the leading states in hepatitis rates.

In an effort to curb drug use, Huntington Mayor Steve Williams and local police began Operation River to Jail last summer, cracking down on drug dealers and sending dozens to jail.

With a plan to get drug dealers off its streets, Huntington has also turned its sights toward helping addicts recover. There are plans to turn the former Prichard Building, now called the Hope Tower, into a $15 million live-in rehabilitation center to go along with numerous rehab centers around the Tri-State.

Another step the city, county and state could take is decriminalizing drugs. Before we go any further, it’s important to point out that decriminalization is not legalization. Under decriminalization, the possession and distribution of drugs is still illegal.

The focus is instead on how people are treated once they are caught with an amount under 10 days’ worth. Instead of jail time and a criminal record, users’ punishments are referred to a panel who decides according to each case whether the person should be fined, sent to rehab or get a warning.

Anti-drug law supporters argue that decriminalization would encourage drug use among those who may not have otherwise experimented if they knew they would not get in trouble. There may also be concern with the treatment facilities and infrastructure in place and whether it could handle decriminalization. And there’s always those who want evidence that decriminalization works.

Anything other than strictly punishing drug users is certainly something far different than many in West Virginia are used to, so it’s reasonable to suspect a skeptical approach to the idea of decriminalization.

However, treating drug users as people with a sickness rather than criminals for a city and state suffering from both a drug problem and financial problem could be beneficial.

Portugal, a country of over 10 million people, decriminalized all drugs in 2001. After experiencing a slight uptick in drug use, Portuguese officials and studies report that addiction, overdoses and drug-related diseases have dropped off dramatically in the country – well below the figures recorded before 2001.

In fact, the country reported that the number of addicts dropped from 100,000 to half of that over the first 10 years.

In the 44 years since Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs, the jail system has grown astronaumically, with over half of the current federal prison population consisting of those charged with drugs. In 2009, 4 out of 5 of the 1.66 million who were arrested on drug charges were possession.

West Virginia has suffered from an ever-decreasing budget, cutting funding from things like higher education – an impact that can be directly felt here at Marshall University. An analysis by the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy found that there was a $202.2 million decrease in the proposed budget from the previous year.

While many programs around the state have seen budget cuts in recent years, the budget for regional jails and correction facilities has steadily increased.

With decriminalization, jails would not be crowded with inmates facing minor possession charges while soaking up taxpayer money that could be going elsewhere. In many cases, those very inmates get released back into the public and back to doing what got them in jail to begin with.

You have to ask yourself what is better, paying for the temporary incarceration of thousands of addicts who are likely to use again once they’re out or paying for their rehabilitation treatment, which is less of a financial burden on taxpayers? Keep in mind that those who are caught distributing drugs will still be jailed for criminal offenses.

Decriminalization would also lower drug-related diseases and deaths. Portugal has seen an even sharper decline in disease than it has in addicts, possibly because of the prevalence of government-sponsored treatment facilities.

According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, Portugal experiences three drug overdoses per 1 million adult citizens. West Virginia, with a population of 1.85 million, has had more heroin-related deaths alone in the last year than the entire country of Portugal.

While Portugal’s death rate cannot be directly linked to decriminalization, it shows that drugs certainly haven’t become the problem they are here in West Virginia.

Like any 12-step program, we need to admit we have a problem. It’s not the drugs, Portugal has shown that. It’s the war on drugs. Decriminalization won’t wash away the problems the local and state community faces, but it may very well be a step in the right direction toward recovery.