Opinion: Treat Drug Use Like the Public Health Risk That It Is

Public Health
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Too many people who use drugs end up in jail instead of getting the help they need. Here’s one way to fix that.

If there is one thing we have learned over the past 145-plus years, it’s that interaction with the criminal justice system for drug-related charges does not increase health or safety. Criminal justice system involvement does, however, come with a host of other negative consequences for people who use drugs, including the increased likelihood of contracting HIV and/or hepatitis C. Not to mention the consequences of any interaction with the criminal justice system on a person’s ability to find stable employment and housing.

Our current approach is ineffective and expensive for the state, and it does more harm than good for individuals and communities. Drug use is ultimately a public health issue, and it requires public health solutions. The more we embrace this idea, the sooner we can make Maryland communities safer and healthier for every resident.

That’s why it’s such an important step that the Maryland House of Delegates passed House Bill 372 (91-39), the Maryland Senate passed Senate Bill 420 with amendments (31-16). Here’s hoping the bill will become law.

The goal of proposed HB 372 and SB 420 is to decriminalize the possession of drug-related paraphernalia. Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition, for which I oversee policy advocacy efforts, and our community is proud of the work toward decriminalization thus far, especially the efforts of bill champions Sen. Jill Carter and Del. David Moon.

If passed as written, HB372 would: 1) redefine “controlled” paraphernalia to support public health and reduce drug war tactics that target drug users; 2) repeal existing portions of law that criminalize possession of paraphernalia for personal use; and 3) reduce or eliminate penalty for possession of paraphernalia for delivery or sale. If passed as amended, SB420 would not include No. 3 above, and so it would continue to criminalize possession of paraphernalia.

Without this important provision of the law, we won’t achieve the clarity and fairness that is needed. The current amendments to SB420 would allow for police involvement and prosecution of people carrying paraphernalia if said officers determine the supplies are for delivery, distribution or sale. These amendments would continue to put the health and safety of loved ones, our community health workers and our communities at risk.

Just last week, a participant of an authorized syringe service program (which is already legal) in Baltimore City was arrested and jailed for attempting to bring items considered paraphernalia to a loved one in another county who needed these life-saving supplies. They had easier access to sterile supplies and were just trying to help their loved one.

At the mercy of current laws and under the version of SB420 as amended, this person was, and would continue to be, punished for trying to help someone achieve greater safety and serve public health goals. Regardless of whether or not the charges will be dropped, this person has had their life turned upside down, spent time in jail risking exposure to COVID and has not been able to attend to their loved ones.

This story is all too common in Maryland, and this is why we need to decriminalize possession of paraphernalia under any circumstance right now. If distribution, delivery and sales of paraphernalia are not protected, our state’s public health remains under threat.

Moreover, if we don’t fully decriminalize the possession of paraphernalia, we leave too much to the discretion of individual police officers and prosecutors. The law will be inconsistently and often unfairly applied, and harms will continue to accrue.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee should support HB 372 as written to ensure that the logic of the law is sound and that there are no major loopholes to criminalize people for carrying life-saving supplies. There is no need for these bills to move to conference – the solution we need already exists in HB 372.

The war on drugs has ruined far too many lives, and we need a new approach – one that puts people, communities and public health first. The state must decriminalize paraphernalia now and ensure that, as Del. Moon says, “the syringe does not come with jail” and instead treats drug use as the public health issue that it is.


The writer is director of mobilization with Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition. She can be reached at [email protected].