Some controversial strategies to fight drug problems have quietly entered the mainstream of governmental policy tools.  The latest example comes from the Cincinnati suburb of Springdale.  Last week, Springdale City Council approved funding for a mobile clinic to fight infectious disease.  Services provided by this mobile clinic include a needle exchange program for heroin addicts.

The remarkable thing here is not the implementation of the exchange program.  The local heroin problem has received significant publicity of late including an ongoing emphasis on local addicts successfully controlling their addiction. (For the most recent story, click here.) In the face of the heroin epidemic,  governments large and small are taking action.  The most important factor here is that these changes, including Springdale’s needle exchange, are occurring with little or no community controversy.

In the not so recent past, a proposal to start a needle exchange program would have generated a loud and righteous response from politicians, radio talk shows and religious leaders.  To provide clean needles to addicts would have been seen as pushing drug addiction, soft on drugs and a sure sign of cultural decay. Cincinnati, with a well-deserved reputation as a bastion of conservatism, would have been one of the last places where we’d expect to see a needle exchange program.

I think the lack of controversy here reflects two important changes. First is the spreading conviction that criminalizing drug addiction has been worse than ineffective.  It has caused substantial harm to the individuals, their families and the communities where they live.  Viewing and treating addiction as a health issue is a more effective response than the criminal justice system.

Second, and perhaps more important — addicts are now being seen less as caricatures and more as human beings.  Nearly everyone knows somebody or some family that has suffered with an addiction problem.  When addicts were people we didn’t know, it was easy to dismiss their problems and support locking them up as a solution.  When we know an addict as a fellow human being, we are more likely to act in a compassionate manner.

After over 40 years of the War on Drugs, America has the worst drug problem in the world.  Citizens are increasingly tired of the same old rhetoric and are looking for real solutions.  Programs like needle exchange reflect a community change in attitude that will eventually lead to the dismantling of the War on Drugs infrastructure that continues to dominate our approach to the problem.