Free heroin is not nearly as frightful as it sounds


On Monday, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, Ireland’s Minister of State, announced his new drug policy, and it sounds positively insane at first. He wants to decriminalize possession of all drugs and offer free heroin to serious addicts. You and the rest of the world might think that Ó Ríordáin is a lunatic, but I urge everyone to reconsider. This is the greatest drug policy paradigm shift that’s ever occurred, and here’s why:

On a basic level, we have to rethink everything we’ve been told about drug addicts. We’ve been conditioned throughout our lives to consider them criminals. Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.)-like programs, over-protective parents and preachy teachers have ingrained a subconscious revulsion of drug addicts. Our “tough-on-drugs” criminal justice system jails them, fines them and otherwise ensures that their lives are entirely destroyed. Addicts go to jail, lose their jobs, get a criminal record, are prevented from getting a new job and lose the money they do have to exorbitant fines and court costs. Is it any wonder that many serious addicts have to turn to crime? Our system removes all of their other options. Punishing addicts for being addicts sustains a positive feedback loop of desperation and drug crime, which is terribly ironic because the whole point of punishing addicts is to deter them from committing crimes.

We are systematically turning our serious drug addicts into criminals. This has to stop, and the secret is to treat them as the rational actors they are. Two famous economists, Kevin Murphy and Gary Becker proposed their “Theory of Rational Addiction,” which redefined the economic academic community’s understanding of addicts’ behavior. In a nutshell, (and in plain English) the paper proposes that every time an addict does heroin, the marginal value of the next dose increases. This is the mechanism that drives addiction at its most basic level. Heroin is not free, so people will run through their savings as the personal value of the drug quickly exceeds the value of their money. After the addict is broke, he or she has a new dynamic trade-off to consider: The value of the next dose and the cost of going to jail for committing illegal activity to secure the money to buy it. Becker and Murphy propose that addicts’ seemingly irrational behavior actually has roots in the highly rational, intuitive calculation they make. The value of the next hit must exceed the addict’s fear of going to jail, and when it doesn’t, they are apt to do something illegal, risky and/or stupid.

When addicts have nothing to lose and when the dynamic trade-off that subconsciously moderated their behavior no longer exists, society suffers real consequences, and our criminal justice system’s drug laws seem purpose-built to completely destroy addicts’ lives as thoroughly as possible.

Ireland plans to change everything. Ó Ríordáin is going to do his damnedest to challenge the status-quo and show the world the benefits to treating addicts as rational actors rather than criminals. Decriminalizing possession of all drugs directly disrupts the positive feedback loop that ruins addicts’ lives and intensifies their addictions. By deciding not to imprison addicts for possessing their substances, the government makes it much easier for them to maintain their jobs. Many drugs addicts, if they are employed, work the type of job that will fire them without hesitation for even one or two unexcused absences.

Missing a shift due to jail time is supremely devastating because it cuts addicts off from their income stream. Millions of drug addicts are perfectly capable of moderating their drug consumption in such a way that they are sober for their work and do it well, then they get high once they get home. It is a delicate yet sustainable dynamic trade-off. Now, if they go to jail on drug-related charges and lose their jobs, they lose their revenue stream for reasons outside of their control. The addicts who are able to reconcile their addictions with the ability to legally sustain them can maintain these delicate balances without worrying about a government actively trying to destroy them. Decriminalizing possession of drugs helps keep employed addicts harmless. Some addicts, however, are dangerous to society.

The free heroin policy keeps these desperate fiends from committing crimes. This policy is aimed at those addicts who value their next dose more than the well-being of their fellow man and the fear of going to prison. Ó Riordáin realizes that he cannot use policy to affect addicts’ substance problems nearly as easily as he can affect their incentive to damage society.

These evere addicts, who would be a danger almost anywhere else, will theoretically be able to stroll into any designated clinic and receive a significant dose of lab-synthesized heroin by a registered nurse with no associated cost. This program takes money out of the equation — especially because the Irish government plans to pair it with other public health initiatives. If all goes to plan, no addict should even consider street crime at all.

In conclusion, it is about time we start helping addicts instead of further destroying their lives. Ireland is not the first country to make a move like this. Switzerland, Portugal, Germany and others have adopted similar policies in the past, and the results have nothing but positive. It is about time we start doing our part to help those in need, so I hope that free heroin doesn’t sound as frightful as it did before.

Will Marcus is a senior International Studies and political science double major from Austin. He is the Opinions Editor.

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