What do we say to the parents and families of those suffering from heroin addiction?  A recent Cincinnati Enquirer Series took an in-depth look at the local problem. Overdose deaths, babies born addicted and the pain suffered by families dealing with an addict were all eloquently described. (Read the entire series)  Information on treatment and prevention resources as well as help for family members was also provided. 

The subtext of the heroin problem was not addressed. What was ignored was the fact the heroin problem is escalating despite the tough drug laws passed with the promise that this is the strategy to most effectively to confront the problem. In fact, the United States, despite spending more money and incarcerating more of its citizens that even China, has drug use and addiction rates among the highest in the world. In fact, as the series documented, our heroin problem is worsening. The War on Drugs is the single biggest failed policy in the country’s history yet we never cease pretending that locking people up is somehow central to solving the problem.

What can we do about the heroin epidemic?  The “lock them up” policy is clearly not working but what are the alternatives? There are some important steps to be taken.  One is implementation of harm reduction strategies.  We’ll cover that in a future post. The other is to dramatically increase treatment resources. How would increasing treatment capacity work to resolve the problem? 

Story after story in the series provided testimony to the incredible power of treatment and recovery. Unfortunately, an addict in our area seeking help for his or her addiction is more likely to be put on a waiting list than in a treatment program.  Providing treatment not only provides hope and help to addicts and their families.  It is also the best way to undercut the drug cartels.  Think about it.  Who are the cartels’ best customers?  It is addicts, those whose lives often revolve around seeking and using drugs.  They are the high volume customers the cartels rely on for their revenue and every addict in treatment is the loss of an important customer.

 In the late 1990’s, Portugal had the worst IV drug problem in Europe.  They decriminalized drug possession and began a major effort to move addicts out of the illegal market and into treatment.  Over the period of a few years, the percentage of addicts in treatment quadrupled. Imagine if we were able to double, triple or even quadruple our treatment capacity. The cartels would be left with a dwindling number of customers supporting their deadly business.

 Critics argue that more treatment will cost money. Expanding treatment capacity and increasing prevention programs comes at a price but the legalization of marijuana has the potential to cover that cost and then some.  John Gettman, an economist who has studied the tax potential of legalization, suggests $15 billion would be raised by taxing marijuana enterprises in the same fashion as other businesses. Add in the estimated $70 billion savings in criminal justice costs and even in Washington, D.C., it looks like significant funding.

Drug money is the fuel that keeps the cartels in the killing business. Taking away their number one product and their biggest customers is the surest way to finally win the drug war.


Howard Rahtz is a retired Police Officer and former drug counselor.  He is the author of Drugs, Crime and Violence: From Trafficking to Treatment. More information is available through his website Howardrahtz.com.