Governor’s Councilor Jubinville wants to decriminalize heroin — and that’s a great idea

This is obviously a good idea: legalizing and taxing drugs and having widely available treatment options for abusers is a far more rational and effective approach than prohibition, as demonstrated by alcohol. - promoted by Bob_Neer

Yesterday, Governor’s Councilor Robert Jubinville sent a letter to state leadership recommending we decriminalize heroin and establish state-run methadone clinics to combat the opiate overdose crisis. From the Taunton Daily Gazette:

“Hopefully this can start the conversation and start helping some of these kids instead of running them through the courts and ruining their lives,” Jubinville said.

In his letter, Jubinville says drug addiction is a disease that should be treated not punished. He applauded Gloucester Police Chief Leonard Campanello who earlier this year announced that his department would stop arresting addicts who show up to the police station to turn in their drugs and paraphernalia and ask for help.

Methadone clinics should be available in every courthouse, according to Jubinville, who described the drug as an “underrated tool” that can be administered by professionals to heroin addicts in a controlled setting, allowing people to function more normally in society.

This is a fantastic idea, long supported by drug policy experts across the globe. Decriminalizing drug possession has worked incredibly well in Portugal, which implemented the policy in 2001 and has seen reductions in overdoses, HIV, addiction, and many other harms related to drug abuse. A few countries, most notably Switzerland, also have programs where they provide heroin to addicts to help wean them off of addiction, connect them to other social services, and reduce harms such as theft by addicts to fund what is an incredibly expensive habit on the black market.

Massachusetts voters haven’t been asked directly about this before, but other polls make it seem like they’d support it too. Last year, MassINC published a poll on criminal justice, which included these findings:

By more than a 2-to-1 margin, people are more likely to perceive drug use as a health problem (64 percent) than a crime (24 percent).

More than four in five (83 percent) think sending drug users to treatment instead of prison would be effective in reducing crime. Drug trafficking is still viewed as a more serious offense, and far fewer would support leniency for those involved.

Despite these promising data points, there’s still a lot of misinformation and fear-mongering out there, so a bill or initiative to address this may be a heavy lift. But I think that given unprecedented public support for criminal justice reform, combined with our state’s overdose epidemic, now is the time to follow Governor’s Councilor Jubinville and push to decriminalize heroin.


46 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. That's getting into the hard stuff, isn't it?

    During marijuana discussions people have said don’t worry, this is a relative minor drug, on par with alcohol in terms of effects. I might be open to this IFF we are really are still willing to throw the book at distributors, pushers, and traffickers, but I’ve never been completely comfortable with libertarian stances on drugs.

    • It sure is, but no reason not to

      Decriminalization, as practiced in Portugal and is proposed here in MA, doesn’t equate to legalization, and still keeps production & distribution illegal. It just removes criminal penalties for personal possession.

      There are good arguments to be made for actually legalizing heroin, but that’s not what I was trying to say.

  2. Bob: No, no it isn't.

    This is obviously a good idea

    It may be a good idea, it may not. It sure as hell isn’t obvious. Heroin isn’t very much like alcohol in a variety of ways — and it’s not as if our treatment of alcohol in America is remarkably rational either.

    I’m not opposed to treatment instead of emprisonment for addicts. That sounds perfectly reasonable — but it’s a hell of a long way from legal and taxed. Frankly, I don’t want my state to profit from hard drug addiction, even a little bit.

    • PHARMA created the opiate crisis

      Frankly, I don’t want my state to profit from hard drug addiction, even a little bit

      If you don’t think Massachusetts and it’s biotech industry hasn’t already profited handsomely off of hard drugs, I want whatever you’re smoking.

      • By "state" I meant my state government,

        and, to be more clear, I meant directly. Relative to the breadth of biotech industry products, it seems unlikely that anything more than a trivial amount of profit comes from “hard drug” addiction and abuse.

    • Good idea, but agreed, not obvious

      I do think there are some good arguments for legalizing heroin (and regulating it much more strictly than alcohol, and I also agree that we should regulate alcohol a little more strictly too), but since only ~10% of people think we should, I agree that it isn’t very obvious. We all recognize that alcohol prohibition didn’t work, but people rightly think that heroin is more dangerous, so the same simple logic that makes marijuana legalization an obvious good idea doesn’t apply here.

  3. Because there aren't enough heroin deaths already?

    Yay! More addiction! More overdoses! More teens destroying their lives! Yippee!

  4. Did you read any of the linked literature?

    Less deaths and better public health outcomes in Portugal which has decriminalized, and there is a strong argument to be made that the best way to ending the drug war which has led to atrocities in Mexico is by depriving the cartel of their revenue source.

    The reality is, people are going to get high whether the government bans it or not, same with alcohol. The responsible public health policy is to have a well regulated above board market, using the proceeds to fund treatment.

    It’s also the fairest way to ensuring that there is not a double standard for the affluent and white ‘recreational’ drug user or dealer and blacks and latinos as there will always be as long as the drug war continues. Are gangsters gunning down anyone in the streets of Chicago over booze anymore? No, and they will stop gunning one another down over drugs the same way-by ending a prohibition policy that has utterly failed to solve the stated policy problem and has devastated communities of color and our neighbor and ally to the South.

    • Indeed

      The War on Drugs is a replay of Prohibition in every aspect, and has been just as successful — which is to say, not at all successful. The only segments of society that have benefited from the WoD are the drug cartels and Law Enforcement, both of which gain massive amounts of money because of it.
      Worldwide illegal drug market value: $322 billion
      Value of civil asset forfeitures in 2011: $2.5 billion

      • Expensive folly

        War on drugs a trillion-dollar failure

        Here we are, four decades after Richard Nixon declared the war on drugs in 1971 and $1 trillion spent since then. What do we have to show for it?
        The U.S. has the largest prison population in the world, with about 2.3 million behind bars. More than half a million of those people are incarcerated for a drug law violation. What a waste of young lives.
        . . .
        Have U.S. drug laws reduced drug use? No. The U.S. is the No. 1 nation in the world in illegal drug use. As with Prohibition, banning alcohol didn’t stop people drinking — it just stopped people obeying the law.

        About 40,000 people were in U.S. jails and prisons for drug crimes in 1980, compared with more than 500,000 today. Excessively long prison sentences and locking up people for small drug offenses contribute greatly to this ballooning of the prison population. It also represents racial discrimination and targeting disguised as drug policy. People of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than white people — yet from 1980 to 2007, blacks were arrested for drug law violations at rates 2.8 to 5.5 times higher than white arrest rates.

        We’ve been throwing good money after bad for 40 years. We should stop doing that.

    • futuristic

      I feel there is a segment of the population (10%?) that enjoys laying round unproductively wanting to exist in la la land. The trick is to let them exist without being a drag on the rest of society, as they currently are ( crime, medical issues, etc).
      In 30 ? years I think there will be places to go (akin to opium dens) where people will hook up their helmets, be lulled into electronically induced states almost comas, and take trips enhanced by 3D graphics and monitored by technicians. The people won’t be bothering the rest of society and their addictive personalities will be satisfied.

  5. Bob -- it's not the best idea to tie legalizing and decriminalizing together

    on this issue.

    Virtually the whole of the population would be opposed to legalizing heroin.

    But a lot of people — maybe even a majority — could get behind decriminalizing it, so people could go to clinics and get safe treatment, and not end up in prison.

    The last thing we need is to let voters who want reasonable solutions to think decriminalization would mean anyone could suddenly buy heroin at their neighborhood convenient store, or some other kind of nonsense — and that’s how it’ll be spun if people aren’t careful.

    • Thank you x 10,000

      Since only 9% of voters support legalizing heroin, and a majority support the concept of decriminalization, it’s important to make the distinction. One of my pet peeves is reporters using the two words interchangeably.

      That was how marijuana decriminalization was spun by many, and it’s obviously not the case. I want to make sure people know the difference so that we can actually decriminalize other drugs here in MA.

  6. I cannot support this.

    This is obviously a good idea: legalizing and taxing drugs and having widely available treatment options for abusers is a far more rational and effective approach than prohibition, as demonstrated by alcohol. - promoted by Bob_Neer

    As Ryepower notes upstream, and others have mentioned also, there is a difference between decriminalization and legalization. That Bob, an otherwise careful and intelligent poster/editor makes this mistake is not on him, rather it attests to the murkiness of the issue and our ongoing unwillingness to confront it directly.

    I wholly support decriminalizing addiction and putting it, wholesale, into the category of an “health care issue.” I would definitively support severing addiction from specific substances and would much rather place addiction in a legal category closer to ‘termporary insanity’ or ‘impaired judgement.’ At some point an addiction, to whatever substance, takes over reasoning and the urge to fix usurps the ability to discern right and wrong in much the same manner as other mental illnesses. This is, I think, regardless of the substance to which one might be addicted.

    I do not support decriminalizing heroin in the same way I don’t support decriminalizing assault weapons. Just too powerful. Methadone, one of the methods of treatment for heroin addiction, is itself a powerful drug and is responsible for a number of deaths every year. In addition, since both heroin and methadone are synthesized chemicals, decriminalizing them, will leave the precursor chemicals with no reason to be criminalized and then every backyard Walter White will be cooking up their own versions and we might be awash in a flood of both really bad batches and supremely potent formulations and everything in between. We’ve seen with the legalization of marijuana the rush to infuse it into products without regard to dosage or strength and this has had many negative consequences.

    And, no, I don’t know how to square the preceding paragraph with the paragraph above it… I suppose we could have a sort of ‘reverse’ three strikes with the most punishment meted out for the first offense and gradually morphing to treatment as repeat offenses indicate addiction and impairment. I don’t know, though.. .

  7. Why just heroin?

    I think it bears asking if there is any racial bias involved in this decision – certainly nothing deliberate, but potentially having a disparate impact.

    When the drugs were in the non-white urban areas, it was all about “arrest, convict, sentence, punish”. Now that the drugs are spilling into the white suburban areas, we’re suddenly talking “decriminalize, divert, treat, forgive”.

    It’s about time that we get to that place, but to single out heroin – the drug of choice of suburban white people – for decriminalization, isn’t that maybe a problem? Why not also call for decriminalization of crack cocaine, the drug of choice of urban black people?

    • Should there be no consideration...

      …for the relative levels of harm to the individual and society, rather than just saying they are all equivalent?

    • I agree

      We need to radically change how we deal with drug abuse with all kinds of drugs — with an emphasis on treatment instead of jail.

      And treatment can’t just mean detox and AA. We need an approach that looks at someone’s entire life — tackling health and mental health issues, housing issues and so on and so forth. People who are addicts need to feel connected, instead of alone.

    • Agreed - we need to decriminalize everything

      I think Jubinville’s call for decriminalizing heroin specifically was just because it was a response to the recent spike in overdoses and it being a big topic of conversation statewide. But I hope he would agree that exactly the same logic applies to every single drug, as criminalizing possession doesn’t make any sense no matter how harmful or addictive the drug is. Heroin is at the high end of that spectrum, so we should certainly decriminalize less harmful drugs like MDMA or LSD, as well as other highly addictive substances like cocaine. It will save money, reduce crime, and help people with addiction.

      If folks haven’t read it, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is an excellent look at the deliberate and inadvertent racism in the War on Drugs, and goes into these issues in incredible depth with a lot of historical grounding.

      • Is the thought to get more people to seek treatment?

        I hope so because my gut reaction to news reports of problems is the last thing we want to do is liberalize.

        • That's the thrust of it

          One of the major problems with our current policy is that people who are addicted to drugs like heroin are afraid to be public about it, from seeking treatment to telling their family members, because of the social stigma and the fear of arrest. Just compare it with alcoholism, where people can be open about their addiction, supported by their community, and seek treatment without going to jail if they relapse. If we had that sort of system for opiates, cocaine, etc, I think we’d see many more people seeking treatment and getting the support they need.

  8. I support full decriminalization of ALL drugs

    I think drug addiction is a severe public health issue, not a law enforcement one, and I have had too many members of my own family go in as addicts in need of help and come out unemployable felons with a record that fall into the drug trade as dealers since they have no other options available to them. And the patterns are inter-generational. Father to son in the case of one cousin, with a third generation potentially on the way despite my aunts best efforts.

    My cousins were definitely stupid to do drugs, and there is always an aspect of personal responsibility involved, but I have to feel that if treatment had been available as an option without jail time, many of them would be on their feet today instead of in and out of prison while their kids are in and out of the foster care system or in the care of grandmothers and great aunts. We can do so much better, especially this state which claims to be compassionate and full of educated policy makers.

    • Glad we cleared that up.

      I think it was you I remember having the exchange I referred to in the first comment on this thread in which I basically called out the argument as basically all you have left is the libertarian case so by that logic why not all drugs. The treatment part had better be mandatory for me to get on board with this. Until then I have way too many concerns about this affecting more than just the person actually engaging in this behavior.

      • Superficial

        Because you can put a label on something does not necessarily mean you’ve said anything significant about the thing. Some libertarians may favor decriminalization of drugs. Maybe most of them do. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. I invite you to actually look into the Portuguese experience. It should allay your concerns, unless they’re based on your moralistic prescriptivism, as I suspect they are.

        • I've looked at the Portuguese...

          …and I’m still concerned about it, but from a public health standpoint. If people are going to go full libertarian on all drugs, they can have that view if they are honest about it. It’s just that I seem to recall getting pushback when I suggested that was the logical conclusion to some people’s stances on marijuana.

          • ?

            Not sure where you are going with marijuana legalization, I have been consistently in favor of that, since it’s not a harmful drug at all, and in favor of decriminalizing drug possession more broadly for harder substances so that addicts can get treatment.

            I have held both of these views the entire time I have contributed here. Legalizing all drugs, as Bob proposed, is a different beast, one I am undecided on, but one that shouldn’t be taboo and in many ways would work better than the status quo. But I want to stop the public health crisis facing us directly today with heroin and opiates-and treatment first as an alternative to incarceration seems to be a good response. One law enforcement in Gloucester agrees with me on. Let’s stop the bleeding and end the war, we can worry about healing the wounds and alternative remedies after we take that basic first step.

            • I can't take you seriously...

              …if you are going to classify marijuana as “not a harmful drug at all”. Yes, I found the links to the contrary last time and not inclined to try again. I like what Gloucester has done. If you have favored decriminalization of others all along that’s fine; I was just reacting to what I remembered as reassurances that we shouldn’t confuse marijuana with other drugs.

              • It's hard to take you seriously on this issue

                Considering you have no qualms about the legalization and taxation of more harmful substances like tobacco and alcohol, or more harmful addictions like casino gambling, I can’t take you seriously on marijuana. I personally dislike the smell as well and have never tried it either, but I can seperate my personal tastes from an evidence based approach to public policy. The evidence we have presented clearly demonstrates how harmful our current policy is, especially in comparison to the harms these policies are supposed to prevent.

                • I'd actually ban tobacco if I could...

                  …but we’ve been through this. Alcohol and gambling don’t effect the person sitting next to you and I don’t buy that alcohol is more harmful than marijuana based on what I have read. It’s not a dislike of smell; I don’t like the smell of strong perfume either but I don’t suggest banning it. Gambling’s not even a drug. We just don’t need to send a message that something else is OK. I can live with decriminalization, especially of marijuana, but I’ve also heard complaints from people that even that is sending a message that it’s not that bad. An example is a grandmother I know who is upset that her daughter now smokes in the presence of her grandchildren now that it’s “just a civil matter” – wrong message and bad for the kid’s health. If there is a way to accomplish this without someone like me who wants nothing to do with it not being able to tell in the course of my daily activities that we’ve changed policy, fine, but I DO NOT want to be exposed to either the physical or societal effects of another drug being used openly and I believe that as a non-hermit I am entitled to that opinion.

                  • Gambling addiction is similar to drug addiction

                    And it has destroyed more families than marijuana addiction, led to more personal bankruptcies, and casinos always attract crime and depress property values while marijuana dispensaries have generated millions in tourism dollars for Colorado and Washington, and crime has actually done down in both localities since its been legalized. Tax and regulate it like alcohol and I can assure you, your exposure to it will be minimal unless you choose to go to places where it’s legal.

                    We are talking about cafes, stores, and dispensaries. You can still keep it away from schools, still say it’s illegal to use on the job, and say it’s illegal to use in the street or public parks-just like booze. Common sense regulation is always a better policy than prohibition.

                    • non sequitur...

                      And it has destroyed more families than marijuana addiction, led to more personal bankruptcies, and casinos always attract crime and depress property values while marijuana dispensaries have generated millions in tourism dollars for Colorado and Washington, and crime has actually done down in both localities since its been legalized.

                      … dispensaries and legalization of marijuana are extremely recent developments while casinos and gambling are a long standing, and long legal, American habit. It remains to be seen if, ultimately, marijuana legalization and open use contributes to problems in the same manner as gambling. Especially since odds (that is to say, mathematics) are essentially of fixed potency but — biology being another longstanding American habit — marijuana can be nurtured and cultivated to be, in ten years, something very different from what it is today.

                  • Logic failure

                    Alcohol and gambling don’t effect the person sitting next to you …

                    Nonsense. If the person next to you is a passenger in the car you’re driving after getting a nice buzz on, that person is very likely to be affected. If the person is your spouse, and you’re addicted to gambling or alcohol, it is utter idiocy to maintain that that person is not affected. Does your anecdotal grandmother object when her daughter drinks in front of her grandchildren? You should examine why not, and why you would not object, a I am confident you wouldn’t.

                    • Yes of course regarding later effects.

                      My point is I’m neither inhaling your wine or your dice. To those who say just regulate it will be fine I would point out that’s not perfect. I just see no compelling reason, certainly not some inherent right, to open ourselves up to the greater likelihood of problems that would come from legalizing another substance for recreational use.

            • This is not true..

              Not sure where you are going with marijuana legalization, I have been consistently in favor of that, since it’s not a harmful drug at all,

              … As we are seeing with the infused products, the dosage does matter. It it is a harmful drug in high dosages. “Traditional” methods of marijuana ingestion (that is to say ‘smoking’) might provide a self-limiting factor to dosages but this has not been the case with infused products and we are seeing the results of that. You can, it turns out, hurt yourself with marijuana. As we can expect cultivars that are purer and more potent, as they are doing the cultivation in the open and legally, this will only become a bigger problem.

              Morphine is just opium with the detritus removed and heroin is a synthesis of morphine that was once sold, over the counter, as a ‘pick-me-up’. As we refine cannabis there’s nothing to indicate we can’t follow the same course and get increasingly more powerful drugs out of this. All of this is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s progress. But the potential for abuse is great. So it’s not a drug completely without harm or the potential for harm…

              • Overstated

                1. There is no evidence that a dosage threshold exists for marijuana. You might get sick from eating too much of it — the same is true for apple pie. Some people don’t like the resulting high — nevertheless, those effects disappear as soon as the drug wears off. There is no marijuana counterpart to, for example, the toxicity of alcohol that kills so many young binge drinkers.

                2. The active ingredient of marijuana is THC. It’s been synthesized for years. Like marijuana, there is no clinical evidence of a toxic dosage limit.

                Since our insane drug laws make it illegal to conduct clinical trials on either marijuana or THC, there is no reliable scientific data on either.

                Most of the reported problems with both marijuana and THC are a consequence of adulteration and/or toxic “carriers” (for example, synthetic cannabis, or “spice”, is either not THC or is THC sprayed on some other possibly noxious plant).

                There are certainly public health issues with opiates. It is simply insane to group marijuana and THC with opiates in government regulations.

                Since the issues with opiates are much better studied and understood, it strikes me as nearly as insane that we make most opiates illegal, so that they are actually uncontrolled (regardless of the “controlled substance” moniker) in the real world.

                • Tom makes another good point

                  Colorado has a more libertarian ethos on marijuana, one that is beneficial to the industry but may allow harmful products to get to the public. I remain a sound progressive on the issue of regulation, just because I favor legalization of marijuana and decriminalization of harder drugs, does not mean I favor a full libertarian approach to the issue. If anything, it will be substantially easier to study the real risks, real harms, and craft sensible regulations if we legalize marijuana and end the zero tolerance war mentality towards drug policy.

                  It should be a public health policy set by public health officials and backed by hard science. It should no longer by set by law enforcement, but I also do not want the industry regulating itself. Mandatory treatment is a far more humane alternative to mandatory incarceration, banning edibles might make sense if we legalize marijuana, and allowing scientists to do real research should help us answer future policy questions with actual facts rather than personal conjecture on either side. Legalization and decriminalization can be gradually implemented in a reasonable way, and I think that should address many of the concerns critics have.

              • Best practices should be studied and implemented;

                I was discussing the question of harm in relation to other legalize products. Of course it’s a harmful drug, but it’s not a hard drug nor is it as harmful as tobacco or alcohol which are already legalized.

                Those Maureen Dowd cases, or cases where kids take the wrong gummies, are not evidence that legalization has failed, but evidence that enforcement and regulations should be tinkered with. None of those issues have come out of Washington, which adopted a stricter regulatory model, one that might be a better fit for Massachusetts. We can learn from the best practices of other states by not being the first mover on this issue, and it’s an advantage that we could also use to maximize potential tax revenue, tourist dollars, and research money while also protecting the public. I am open to a ban on edibles, as Washington does, since it does seem New York Times columnists and young children get confused by them.

                I do know Colorado is currently the nexus of marijuana research, which I am sure Massachusetts could easily be with our biotech and life science base, it would be a boon to our industry as well as to projected revenue from taxation and tourism. It would due a lot more to lure out of staters than the Wynn casino.

                • I'm open to more research...

                  …and I believe I’ve said all along that I’m open to being smart on enforcement. I DO NOT want people coming here for the purpose of getting high – talk about an argument virtually guaranteed to push me further in the other direction!

                  I’m sorry, this is philosophical to some extent (which yes, I do in fact distinguish from moral – the former has societal implications while the latter is strictly personal in my mind). I guess I’m just too firmly rooted in the generation brought up on “just say no” and “this is your brain on drugs” to see any benefit to legalizing another substance for recreational use.

                  • Marijuana can't be studied under current law

                    Current federal law puts marijuana in the same category as hard drugs like heroin. It is illegal to use it to conduct research. It is illegal to attempt to conduct clinical trials.

                    It is, in fact, canonical catch-22. We can’t be “smart on enforcement” when have ZERO clinical data about marijuana and when we make even an attempt to collect such data illegal.

                    Those slogans “just say no” and “this is your brain on drugs” epitomize the hysteria that those who promoted them pandered to. You were brainwashed as a child. In my view, a sad reality is that you cannot see any benefit to legalizing marijuana (the rest of the thread proposes to decriminalize heroin) because, as you describe, you were intentionally conditioned to be unable to see that benefit.

                    I think it’s worth asking what it takes to de-program the large segments of our culture who have been brainwashed in this way.

                    • That is just dumb!

                      Even if keep all other laws just as they are we should always allow legitimate scientific research to go forward. I would certainly support lifting such bans. That includes all such substances IMO.

        • Plus...

          …please don’t put words in my mouth or thoughts in my head. I am not now and never have been interested in legislating morality for its own sake.

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