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Narcotics

President Joe Biden

A deadly plague continues to rage across America, and neither vaccines nor face masks nor herd immunity can stop it. The epidemic of drug overdose deaths has taken more lives than COVID-19 and is more intractable. But the Biden administration is showing a welcome openness to a new strategy.

That approach is known broadly as "harm reduction." The idea is that drug abuse should be regarded as a public health problem, not a crime or a sin. Prohibiting and punishing drug use doesn't work. A better option is helping illicit users modify their behavior to reduce their risks.

"I believe this administration is the first to use the term 'harm reduction' in its drug strategy," says Maritza Perez, director of the office of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance.

The risks of opioid use in particular are grave and growing. In 2019, the number of drug overdose deaths was 70,630, the highest ever, and most involved opioids. But in 2020, the total was 93,331, an increase of 32 percent. Since 1999, more than 900,000 Americans have died of drug overdoses.

The epidemic has its roots in the 1990s, when drug companies brought out new opioids such as OxyContin, which were marketed as safe for treating chronic pain. But many patients became addicted, and some died of overdoses.

You might think that the federal crackdown on pain prescriptions and the successful lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies would make a big difference, and you would be right: The number of fatalities involving nonprescription opioids has soared.

For the past half-century, presidents of both parties have seen drug abuse as a job for police and prosecutors, relying on harsh punishment to deter buyers and sellers. But mass incarceration failed — and President Joe Biden, who helped bring it about as a U.S. senator, now recognizes it was "a big mistake."

Today, he's embracing something different: trying to keep drug users alive while facilitating their access to ways of overcoming addiction and avoiding death. The COVID-19 relief act enacted this year includes $30 million for programs aimed at harm reduction.

Among these are syringe services, which let injecting drug users get free, sterile needles without fear of arrest. These are a time-tested method of curbing lethal diseases, including HIV and hepatitis C, but they have long been barred from federal funding. President Barack Obama got the ban lifted, but when Republicans regained control of Congress in 2011, they restored it.

Even former Vice President Mike Pence, however, was willing to allow syringe services when things got dire enough. As governor of Indiana in 2015, he approved a program in one county to combat a severe outbreak of HIV. "I will tell you that I do not support needle exchange as anti-drug policy," he said then. "But this is a public health emergency." The program was a phenomenal success.

The White House has issued a long statement of its drug policy priorities, with an eye to reducing fatal overdoses. It promises to improve access to drugs used to treat and overcome opioid dependence. It endorses efforts to promote the use of naloxone, which can reverse overdoses, and test strips to detect fentanyl, a highly potent opioid that suppliers often mix into heroin and cocaine — with sometimes tragic results.

The point is not only to save drug users from sudden death but also to give them a path away from addiction. Harm-reduction organizations, the White House statement says, "can build trust over time with patients and are in a unique position to encourage (drug users) to request treatment, recovery services and health care." This year's expansion of the Affordable Care Act has also made it possible for more people to get mental health and substance abuse treatment.

But the addiction to law enforcement is hard to break. Biden has proposed to make permanent the Trump administration's policy of classifying all fentanyl-related substances as Schedule I drugs, exposing users to stiff criminal penalties.

That's the opposite of harm reduction — adding the hazards of imprisonment to the risk of overdose. Not to mention that, as we've learned from decades of trying to eradicate cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines, locking up people for using drugs doesn't keep people from using drugs.

Biden has taken a big step toward a better future. But he still has one foot stuck in the past.

Follow Steve Chapman on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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When Will Biden Fulfill His Promise To Free Pot Prisoners?

Just before he left office, Donald Trump freed more than a dozen federal prisoners who had received sentences ranging from 15 years to life for growing, transporting, or distributing marijuana. Yet President Joe Biden, who during his campaign said "anyone who has a (marijuana) record should be let out of jail" and promised to "broadly use his clemency power for certain nonviolent and drug crimes," is suddenly reticent about following Trump's example.

While Biden has come a long way since his days as an ardent drug warrior who bragged about the draconian sentences he helped enact, he still has not caught up with most Americans on marijuana policy. According to a recent Quinnipiac University poll, 69 percent of Americans, including 78 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of Republicans, support legalization.

Biden — unlike most of the Democrats he beat for his party's 2020 presidential nomination, including his vice president — opposes repealing the federal marijuana ban, a position that puts him in the minority even within his age group. Instead, he wants to decriminalize low-level possession, an idea that was at the cutting edge of marijuana reform in the 1970s.

Since the Justice Department rarely prosecutes marijuana users, Biden's proposal would have little impact at the federal level. And it would do nothing to address the untenable conflict between the Controlled Substances Act and the laws that allow medical or recreational use of marijuana in 36 states.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), plans to reintroduce a legalization bill that was approved by the House of Representatives in December but was never considered by the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), says his chamber likewise will soon consider legislation that would "end the federal prohibition on marijuana."

When New York Post reporter Steven Nelson asked White House press secretary Jen Psaki during a press briefing last month whether Biden would sign such a bill, she reiterated his support for reclassifying marijuana "so researchers can study its positive and negative impacts," for allowing medical use, for letting states legalize recreational use, and for "decriminalizing marijuana use and automatically expunging any prior criminal records." Pressed to explicitly say whether Biden would sign a legalization bill, Psaki replied, "I just have outlined what his position is, which isn't the same as what the House and Senate have proposed."

Unlike legalization, freeing marijuana prisoners would not require an act of Congress, and it is consistent with what Biden said on the campaign trail. His promises created a reasonable expectation that he would show mercy for marijuana offenders who continue to languish in federal prison, such as Ismael Lira and Pedro Moreno, who are serving life sentences for distributing cannabis from Mexico.

As Corvain Cooper, one of the marijuana lifers freed by Trump, told Nelson, "No one should be serving a long prison sentence over marijuana when states and big corporations are making billions of dollars off of this plant." Yet, when Nelson asked Psaki about clemency, she irrelevantly cited Biden's support for moving marijuana from Schedule I of the CSA to Schedule II.

Nelson tried again the next day, noting that Biden bears personal responsibility for the lengthy sentences imposed on people for peaceful activities that are now legal in most states, including at least 17 that already or soon will allow recreational sales. "Will President Biden honor his commitment to release everyone imprisoned for marijuana?" he asked.

Psaki did not deny that Biden had made that promise. But she brought up "rescheduling" again and claimed she did not know the answer because it depends on arcane legal knowledge.

"What you're asking me is a legal question," Psaki said. "I'd point you to the Department of Justice."

The "legal question" is not complicated. Biden's commitment to "broadly use his clemency power" has nothing to do with rescheduling marijuana, and he could begin delivering on it today if he were so inclined. Psaki's obfuscation suggests it is not a high priority.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @JacobSullum. To find out more about Jacob Sullum and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.