International Overdose Awareness Day - A Time for Reflection and Action

This week, America observed the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The speech delivered on August 28, 1963 by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. remains one of the most famous in American history, a masterpiece of hard truths, admonitions, and prophesies that struck the ear like the carefully constructed lines of a beautiful and powerful poem.

A very young John Lewis, also spoke that day. Although his speech was easily overshadowed by Dr. King's oratorical mastery, the future congressman's words embodied confidence and potency:

"...For those who have said, "Be patient and wait!" we must say, "Patience is a dirty and nasty word." We cannot be patient, we do not want to be free gradually, we want our freedom, and we want it now..."

A somewhat less remarkable anniversary will be observed also this week. Saturday, August 31 is the 13th annual International Overdose Awareness Day. The observance is both a time for reflection and action. It is a time to remember those who have succumbed to addictive illness and drug overdose. And it's a time to act on behalf of those in the throes their addiction, but who are still with us.

Fatal drug overdose now ranks as the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S., surpassing motor-vehicle accidents. Although it may not be widely known, Narcan (naloxone) is an opiate reversal drug that can be administered to revive a person experiencing an overdose. And Suboxone Is a prescription drug that helps wean people off heroine and other opiates, while they remain functional and live their lives. These are two highly effective drugs that save lives and free people from the bondage of addiction.

So why aren't these drugs made readily available to sufferers? And aside from addiction, for what other disease is shame acceptable and incarceration lawful?

The answers to these questions have everything to do with the war on drugs. For our nation's drug policy has spawned and perpetuated attitudes that stigmatize those who use drugs; heaped shame upon the loved ones of addicted persons; and neutralized the rest of us with a false sense of moral superiority.

Arresting 850,000 people annually for nonviolent drug possession is a colossal human rights violation that should not be allowed to stand. Criminalizing primarily poor people on such scale has been every bit as debilitating as the Jim Crow laws targeted by the civil rights movement.

While Dr. King's I have a dream speech still rings in our ears, we must remember the nightmare of the forty-year drug war whose devastating impact has been borne disproportionately by people of color. And we must take up the mantle of an impatient John Lewis. For far too long we have acquiesced to a costly, harmful and ineffective response to drug abuse and addiction. We need law enforcement for violent crime, but nonviolent drug possession is best left in the purview of public health.

The time has come to end the stigmatization and criminalization of nonviolent drug users, and make lifesaving drugs available to those who need them. We want a revolutionary drug policy rooted in science, compassion and equity. And we want it now.