New Report Offers Community-Based Solutions to Epidemic of Overdose Deaths Nationwide

Findings demonstrate that criminalizing drug use has failed, and offers examples where other forms of intervention are succeeding

NEW YORK, NY – Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, with no one-size-fits-all solution. However, the most common response -- criminalization and punishment -- has done little if anything to solve this crisis, and has instead driven mass incarceration, exacerbated racial disparities within the criminal justice system, and devastated communities of color.

Today, the Vera Institute of Justice released a new report, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: Changing Course in the Overdose Crisis: Moving from Punishment to Harm Reduction and Health, which examines the intersection of drug use and the criminal justice system. Focusing on two places that are following different paths in their response to drug use -- Ross County, OH and Atlanta, GA -- the report offers practical guidance for moving toward a new paradigm that prioritizes community health, harm reduction, and recovery.

“Across the country, an epidemic of overdose deaths is overwhelming our communities and worsening the crisis of mass incarceration,” said Leah Pope, Senior Research Fellow at the Vera Institute of Justice. “However, while there are effective harm reduction and treatment- based strategies available, we still rely too heavily on the criminal justice system as a response to drug use. We hope this report and its findings can serve as a blueprint for communities looking to move away from ineffective and “war on drugs” policies that disproportionately impact communities of color, and instead prioritize the health and safety of all people.”

Using existing literature, interviews with experts, and in-depth case studies from Ross County, OH, and Atlanta, GA, the report contextualizes the current drug overdose crisis and provides a series of recommendations for a more compassionate and effective response.

“The public health side is broken. So, while you’re working on convincing criminal justice people to reform how they approach drug use, nothing looks appealing on the other side, since we’ve been lacking resources and internal coordination for building out a true health response,” said Daliah Heller, Director of Drug Use Initiatives at Vital Strategies, a global public health non-profit. “Vera’s report provides guidance to both sides and will hopefully help create more health-centered responses to the overdose crisis.”

Developed from lessons learned through the research process, the new report offers key strategies and recommendations for interventions such as:

  • Minimizing justice-system contact for people who use drugs and ensuring access to evidence-based care for those in the justice system.
  • Focusing legislative attention on increasing resources for public health and community-based harm reduction responses, such as expanding Medicaid, improving regulations around medication-assisted treatment, and reforming laws and policies that limit people with criminal histories from accessing social benefits.
  • Providing people with substance use disorders a variety of harm reduction, treatment, and abstinence-based recovery interventions.
  • Applying a race equity lens to all policies and programs in responses to drug use and drug-related harms.

“Putting an end to substance use disorder requires community collaboration,” said Laken Woods, a peer recovery counselor in Ross County, Ohio. “This new research from Vera confirms what I see in my work: You have to meet people where they are and make sure they’re supported, not punished.”

“The Vera report takes a vital, deeper dive into the current responses to drug use and where they fall short,” said Mona Bennett, Co-founder of the Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition. “Those of us working on harm reduction appreciate Vera amplifying our messages.”

In the report, Vera’s findings are guided by principles of equity, harm reduction, human dignity, and the belief that drug use should be addressed primarily as a public health issue.

About the Vera Institute of Justice

The Vera Institute of Justice is a justice reform change agent. Vera produces ideas, analysis, and research that inspire change in the systems people rely upon for safety and justice. Vera collaborates with the communities most impacted by these systems and works in close partnership with government and civic leaders to implement change. Across projects, Vera is committed to explicitly and effectively reducing the burdens of the justice system on people of color and frames all work with an understanding of our country’s history of racial oppression. Vera is currently pursuing core priorities of ending the misuse of jails, transforming conditions of confinement, providing legal services for immigrants, and ensuring that justice systems more effectively serve America’s increasingly diverse communities. Vera has offices in Brooklyn, NY; Washington, DC; New Orleans, and Los Angeles.

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