December 13, 2016


Cleveland State professionals weigh in on drug policy reform


By Elisabeth Weems

Cuyahoga County continues to face a rising opiate epidemic, including the abuse of heroin and prescription painkillers like Vicodin and Fentanyl.

Cleveland State University professionals and others who are familiar with how the community faces the problem, offer sociology, urban studies and law enforcement perspectives.

The leading cause of injury-related deaths in Ohio is accidental drug overdose, according to the 2015 Cuyahoga County Opiate Task Force Report. The majority of users are white males between the ages of 20 and 30 or 40 and 60.

According to the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office, heroin deaths in the county have increased by nearly 400 percent since 2007.

James Chriss, Ph. D., associate professor of sociology, said that to create effective drug legislation, one must understand of the causes of drug use.

Chriss explained during the 1970s, the U.S. shifted from treating drug abuse with rehabilitation to punitive criminal justice. He said that opting for a justice system that treats it as a psychological disorder instead of a crime would benefit those who are impacted by drugs.

“This hardcore approach of sanctioning and sentencing really doesn’t seem to get to the root cause of the use and abuse cycle,” Chriss said. “Now with this heroin epidemic, we’ve realized that the punitive approach is kind of limited.”

The most recent wave of significant drug use in the U.S. involved the abuse of crack cocaine during the 1980s and 1990s. This was a few years after former president Richard Nixon declared the War on Drugs, which mandated minimum sentences and created other tough-on-crime policies.

“I think the War on Drugs is one of the most immediately obvious problems with the criminal justice system,” said Nazgol Ghandnoosh, Ph.D., research analyst for The Sentencing Project, an advocacy group for drug policy reform.

Ghandnoosh explained that the current criminal justice approach to combatting drug addiction with incarceration fails to treat substance abuse as a health issue.

“Overall there is a disconnect between the research on drug use and how to help people who are dealing with substance abuse problems move away from those issues and treat those problems,” Ghandnoosh said.
Ronnie Dunn, Ph.D., associate professor of urban studies, explained that race has played a role in drug policy, highlighting racial sentencing disparities.

According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 80 percent of people sentenced under federal crack cocaine laws were black. Today, blacks make up 12 percent of the total population of drug users, but 59 percent of those incarcerated in state prisons for drug offenses.

“If we aren’t every explicit and conscious when dealing with race in our institutions [and] in our public policy arenas, that’s why significant racial disparities exist in our society, because of that unwillingness of individuals and administrators within organizations to address race head-on,” Dunn said.

In 2012, Cuyahoga County public officials, medical professionals, addiction specialists and those who have been affected by heroin created the Community Action Plan.

The plan included a syringe exchange program and the Metro Health Project DAWN, — deaths avoided with naloxone, an antidote to overdose — reflecting a shift toward seeking treatment as an alternative to incarceration.

Chief Gary Lewis of the Cleveland State Police Department’s explained the importance of this change in approach.

“I think that the evolution has taught us that we have to be very flexible, that we have to adjust and adapt, and that zero tolerance is not always the only approach,” Lewis said. “In addition to the enforcement, the rehabilitation as well as the treatment has to occur.”


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