Fentanyl Epidemic Plagues United States

Criminal Justice System Shifts Focus to Public Health Approach in Addressing Addiction

by Natasha Ashenhurst

Fentanyl, a powerful opioid that can be mixed with other drugs, has become a widespread and deadly problem in the United States, according to Jon Tunheim, Thurston County Prosecuting Attorney. In an interview, he describes the evolution of the drug trade, its link to crime, and the new approach that the criminal justice system is taking to address substance use disorder.

Tunheim notes that substance use disorder has always been a major concern for the criminal justice system, with heroin and cocaine being the primary substances of concern in the 1990s. “Methamphetamine emerged in the early 2000s, and enforcement work on meth labs eventually led to their decline,” said Tunheim. “Opioids, such as prescription painkillers, became the next major focus, with regulation eventually cracking down on their use. However, Fentanyl is now the most prevalent and dangerous drug, as it is cheap, powerful, and can easily be mixed with other drugs.”

One of the main challenges with Fentanyl is that it is incredibly easy to overdose, and the dosage is often unpredictable. As a result, the criminal justice system is shifting its focus from treating substance use disorder as a criminal issue to a public health issue.

“The shift from treating Substance Use Disorder (SUD) from a crime and punishment approach to a public health and treatment approach has been evolving for several years, but has accelerated during the opioid epidemic and certainly now with the increase in Fentanyl.  Criminal justice, in my view, needs to be a partner with public health to maintain a holistic approach to this epidemic,” he said.

“By working to create intervention points and pathways to treatment, the goal is to reduce the likelihood of recidivism and provide pathways to treatment for those struggling with substance use disorder,” he said.

Tunheim notes that drug courts are one of the best models for criminal justice and treatment. Focusing on drug trafficking and supply-side enforcement, while working with public health to address the demand side, is the key to combating Fentanyl’s spread.

While a treatment deficit exists in the United States, Tunheim argues that a collaborative public health approach can be effective in addressing SUD.

Finally, Tunheim explains how important it is that everyone understand what Narcan is and how it can be used in the Fentanyl fight.

“There is a drug out there that can stop the effects of the opioid to prevent the overdose. It is called Narcan. Law enforcement and first responders carry Narcan. There is an order in effect statewide for people to get Narcan—it covers anyone in the state,” he said.

“Our County Health Department has free training. It is safe to use and easy to use and it is looked at as one of the leading strategies to interrupt an overdose in the moment.”

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