Earlier this week, Gov. Doug Ducey stood before a remarkable assembly of lawmakers from the majority and minority caucuses and stakeholders from corrections, faith communities, law enforcement, treatment agencies, and all points in between as he called a special session to address the opioid addiction crisis in Arizona.
This display of unity was impressive, as it was clearly intended to be. It sent the message that our state government was willing to put partisan bickering aside in service of a singular goal: addressing this crisis head on.
Leadership from both parties remarked on the collaborative and bipartisan nature of the process, taking potshots at the federal government’s recent shutdown. It’s a sad commentary that elected officials working together to govern is so noteworthy. But given the obvious success of the approach, we can all hope that it is one that once again becomes the rule rather than the exception.
Last June, the governor declared a state of emergency upon findings by the Arizona Department of Health Services that opioid overdose deaths rose by 74 percent between 2013 and 2017. Since then, the director of the Department of Health Services, health service providers, criminal justice advocates, and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have spent long hours compiling research and formulating a workable response to this crisis.
The comprehensive and bipartisan nature of the process is evident in the scope of the bill’s provisions. Instead of the old knee-jerk, “get tough” posturing, the Arizona Opioid Epidemic Act applies the best practices in the field, stressing the public health nature of the disease of addiction. The bill provides millions in additional funding for drug treatment services, expands access statewide to life-saving opioid antagonists such as Narcan and Naloxone, and establishes a Good Samaritan law, protecting people who call 911 during an overdose from prosecution for drug possession.
This is especially important, as our criminal justice system is spending over half a million dollars per day incarcerating people for addiction and minor drug possession. According to the Department of Public Safety, 89 percent of all drug arrests in 2015 were for possession, not sales or trafficking.
In Maricopa County, more than 45 percent of all criminal charges brought in 2015 were for drug possession. And, in our Department of Corrections, drug crimes make up the largest offense category, with more than one-fifth of the prison population being in for drugs as their highest charge. For women prisoners, that percentage is even higher: 32 percent of all women inmates are in for drug offenses.
While the Arizona Department of Corrections has identified 77 percent of inmates as needing drug treatment, only 2 percent of incarcerated people are receiving substance abuse treatment at any given time. And, most disappointingly, our recidivism rate in Arizona is around 50 percent. Clearly, we can do better to solve this problem.
Fortunately, we know that treatment works. By taking a preventative and intervention-based approach, the Arizona Opioid Epidemic Act is a first step toward recognizing and addressing the disease of addiction in Arizona. From here, we hope that the state will move toward reforming the outdated and ineffective laws that criminalize and punish addiction rather than treat it as the health problem that it is. Only then can we bring a true end to this crisis, and perhaps circumvent the next one.
We hope that the governor’s playbook is one that is applied consistently as we move forward to address addiction: Engaging the experts, collecting real-time data, incorporating input from all stakeholders, and reaching across the aisle. With so many lives on the line, Arizonans deserve nothing less.
— Caroline Isaacs is the Arizona program director of the American Friends Service Committee.
The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.