It’s time for Maine to legalize heroin

Staff worker at the heroin-assisted treatment facility in Geneva prepares injectable heroin before the patients arrive. Photo credit: Taylor Knopf

It seems like every day I log into Facebook and see another friend mourning the loss of somebody they love gone to an overdose. Usually the deceased is young, but not always. Often brilliant, compassionate, the sort of person who, if things had only played out differently, could have been a true source of creativity and inspiration for many in their community. Sometimes, they still were that ray of light, at least to some, despite their struggles.

As devastating as this epidemic is, what I think is really painful here is that almost none of this heartache is truly necessary. This problem could largely all be over tomorrow. We just need the political will and the courage to make it happen.

We’ve got to legalize heroin.

People who die of overdoses are reckless, sure, but they aren’t genuinely suicidal. For the most part, they’re just trying to get high. If they could buy a professionally measured, nonlethal dose of the drug and use it somewhere safe and supervised, none of them would be in danger of experiencing a fatal overdose any more.

Nobody would have to get a new synthetic heart valve installed because they mainlined bacteria into their veins, and it infected their internal organs. The State of Maine could free up the $20M it spends every year treating people who contract Hepatitis C and hopefully put it toward happier things.

And, while I suppose there might always be a bit of a black market in drugs operating outside of the constraints of whatever regulated legal system came into being here, my guess is it’d likely be pretty tiny. Why would you risk arrest acquiring something criminally when you could just as easily attain a far safer version of the same thing from your doctor?

We’re running out of other options.

Last week, cops in Waterville seized 3.5 pounds of Fentanyl, a popular synthetic alternative to heroin. That was enough for well over a thousand people to fatally overdose. By any reasonable standard, it should have been a big bust with a big impact. Within a few days, however, I’m sure that town had just as much dope on its streets as it had the week before. All they needed to do was drive more up from Massachusetts or order it online from China via the “dark web.” As far as I can tell, the supply of these new synthetic opioids appears to be almost infinite.

However, were we to seriously consider legalizing heroin, we would have to do so with the understanding that nobody, not even the vast majority of drug users themselves, wants to live in a world where everybody is numbed into oblivion all the time.

As I see it, that’s the cost-benefit analysis here: sure the fatalities of our current situation come at a high cost, but if legalizing heroin were to cause countless numbers of our friends and loved ones to start using the drug addictively, wouldn’t that be a much higher cost for us to bear? I know intimately what daily addictive opiate use can do to people, and it would break my heart to see even one more person I care about fall into that way of life.

But I honestly don’t think that would happen. For one thing, Portugal has already basically done this, and it proved quite successful. Today, the number of people there receiving addiction treatment has risen by 60%, while the overall rate of drug use in the country has remained around the same as it is in other European countries that didn’t change their drug rules. I think something similar might well happen here in Maine, especially now that MaineCare has been expanded – a lot more people would get help, while rates of overall use would remain basically constant.

Legal or not, normal, healthy people just don’t want to shoot heroin every day. Even if it were possible, I can’t imagine myself ever asking my doctor for it. I have so many wonderful, meaningful relationships and projects in my life right now. Why would I want to check out from all of them? I mean, I’m not about to ask my doctor for Lipitor either. Why would I? My cholesterol levels are fine.

The vast majority of people who receive high-powered painkillers at the hospital, including many much more powerful than heroin, don’t seek them out afterwards. In general, the people we’d need to worry about developing an unhealthy relationship with the drug are the ones who are already in severe pain. Physical pain. Emotional pain. Spiritual pain. Often people who are lonely, traumatized and hopeless. When human beings suffer, they seek solace, sometimes from their doctors, sometimes from their communities or their pastors, sometimes from their drug dealers. If we want to reduce rates of problematic drug use, we’ve got to meet people who are in pain where they’re at in a way that enables them to stay safe, stay out of trouble and stay alive.

If we can do that, at least as a starting place, we’ll be well on our way toward bringing people in from the cold and helping them adjust to new ways of life in recovery, whatever “recovery” personally ends up meaning to them. If we continue to push people out to fend for themselves and seek comfort on the black market, at best, they may get sick and be in danger, more likely, they will continue to die in record numbers. And much of their blood will continue to be on our hands.

Rob Korobkin

About Rob Korobkin

Rob is a software engineer, community organizer, teacher and musician. He can often be found at Peloton Labs, staring at his laptop, drafting diatribes and programming software late into the night.