U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin provided a fairly blunt reply to the proposition that the War on Drugs failed.
“By some measure, it has failed,” said Durbin, D-Ill. “If the measure is the cost of drugs on the street, it has failed. But when we look at the individual lives saved, there are certainly heroic great stories to be told. But we have to be honest about what works and what doesn’t.”
Before hosting a roundtable discussion Monday in Granite City on heroin abuse, Durbin extolled the virtues of drug treatment –- and the increasing availability of drugs like Naloxone that reverses a heroin overdose.
“‘Just say no’ isn’t good enough,” Durbin said. “We’ve got to have treatment. We have to have drug courts -- which we have right here in Madison County -- that take the people who are suffering from drug over-use or abuse and find another path for them back to a good life. It doesn’t have to go through jail every time. There could be a better way to do it.”
Durbin has backed federal legislation to provide funding to community organizations to purchase and distribute Naloxone. He also wants to lift the cap on the number of patients physicians can treat using medication-assisted therapies – and enable nurse practitioners and physicians' assistants to treat patients.
Durbin said federal initiatives are a response to heroin abuse becoming especially prevalent in suburban and rural Illinois.
“There’s a dramatic increase in heroin use, heroin overdose and death,” Durbin said. “And what we’re finding is there’s a different demographic. It isn’t just the poor inner-city resident anymore who dies from an overdose of heroin. Too often you find it in suburbs, in rural towns downstate. So we’ve got to take it seriously.”
Durbin’s policy push comes as the White House is expanding an initiative to fight heroin.
The Washington Post reported on Sunday that President Barack Obama’s administration is unveiling a plan that, among other things, hires more analysts to get important data “to street-level law enforcement.” It would also train first responders how to deploy drugs like Naloxone.
Some experts and researchers see in the different responses to these drug epidemics further proof of America’s racial divide. Are policymakers going easier today on heroin users (white and often affluent) than their elected predecessors did a generation ago when confronted with crack addicts who were largely black, disenfranchised, and economically bereft? Can we explain the disparate response to the “black” heroin epidemic of the 1960s, in which its use and violent crime were commingled in the public consciousness, and the white heroin “epidemic” today, in which its use is considered a disease to be treated or cured, without using race as part of our explanation?
'We have to talk'
Durbin’s roundtable featured testimony from local elected officials and law enforcement officers, as well as people like Kelsay Matchefts.
The Bethalto resident started using heroin around five years ago. The 20-year-old said she has “stolen, lied and cheated” to get more heroin.
After getting arrested 18 months ago for a residential burglary, Matchefts became part of a drug court program. She said the program has helped her steer clear of the drugs for about six months.
“I’ve seen people get denied treatment and it’s a shame,” Matchefts said. “I personally know someone right now who is trying to get into treatment and can’t. I’ve seen the overdoses. I’ve lost people to overdoses. … I just want to see a difference.”
Kari Karidis is a Madison County educator whose son Chaz died of a heroin overdose in 2013. In addition to coming up with public policy changes, Karidis said parents must be more concerned about what their children are doing.
“This isn’t some thing that we shouldn’t talk about or we can’t talk about. We have to talk,” Karidis said. “We have to work together. It really does take a village to raise our children. We have to look out for each other. We have to be heroes when we see people with problems. Not ignore it.”
Durbin echoed that sentiment – especially since prescription drug abuse is a precursor to using heroin.
“And you have these teenage kids say, ‘Yeah, we visit my buddy’s house, we go in, we’ve got to use the bathroom, and we go through the medicine chest,’” Durbin said. “If there’s anything in there that they can ingest, they just take it like they’ve been off to a market to buy drugs. So there’s got to be some reality and some education when it comes to parents and teachers, too.”
Durbin says Iran deal could avert war
Meanwhile, Durbin reiterated his support for Obama’s agreement to ease tensions with Iran.
While the deal faces either skepticism or outright opposition from Republicans and some Democrats, Durbin posited the agreement as a way to prevent a military conflict with Iran.
“The alternatives, two of them, are terrible,” Durbin said. “Iran with a nuclear weapon? Unacceptable. An arms race in the Middle East? [That’s] devastation the likes of which we’ve never seen.”
“That’s one option to this diplomatic agreement. The second is military action. We’ve tried this, my friends, over the past 10 or 15 years sending the best American forces into the Middle East,” he added. “And it cost us dearly in human lives and those who were injured and cost to our treasury. If we can find a diplomatic way through this agreement to send in the inspectors and get an honest appraisal of what Iran is doing, that is much better than another war.”
When asked if Sen. Chuck Schumer’s opposition to the deal would affect how Senate Democrats voted on the measure, Durbin replied: “Most of my colleagues that I’ve talked to are judging this on an individual basis.
“This is almost a vote of conscience,” Durbin said. “It’s like those votes that come around once or twice in a career about whether to go to war. You really sit and you lie awake at night thinking ‘What’s the right thing to do?’ This fits in the same category. I don’t think any single senator taking a position’s going to change that.”