Bills from Morhaim Take New Approach on Drug Addiction

De. Dan Morhaim (D-District 11)
Del. Dan Morhaim (D-District 11)

Del. Dan Morhaim (D-District 11), along with numerous co-sponsors, introduced three bills Jan. 27 that take a radical approach in addressing drug addiction in the state.

One bill seeks to decriminalize small amounts of controlled substances, as the state already has done for marijuana, and takes a three-strikes approach. Those stopped for first and second possession offenses will instead be fined and, where applicable, be referred to a treatment facility. The third offense will put the offender in the criminal justice system.

The second bill requires hospital emergency departments to have an addiction counselor available for those coming in with drug-related injuries. Patients in need of treatment would be evaluated and then admitted or referred to an outpatient setting.

“If you come to the ED with appendicitis, I would set up surgery and admit you,” Morhaim, a longtime emergency medicine physician, said. “If you came in with a cardiac issue, I would find a cardiologist and admit you. If you come in with addiction, you sign a sheet and we let you go.”

The third, and probably most controversial, bill would set up safe drug consumption facilities in the state. These facilities would help addicts shoot up safely and develop relationships within the community, with the hope that a large portion of them eventually seek treatment.

“They really target the most marginalized groups of people,” said Lindsay LaSalle, the senior staff attorney at Drug Policy Alliance, a California-based group with which Morhaim consulted on the legislation, along with other local experts. “Safe consumption allows you to meet them where they are.”

The sites would be staffed by health professionals and offer a clean, safe environment for those addicted to get their fix without resorting to crime or trying to use back alleys or bathrooms of local businesses, Morhaim said.

The sites have not been implemented anywhere in the U.S. yet, although Seattle has recently voted to go ahead with the program as part of its opioid epidemic task force recommendations. A handful of other states, such as New York, Massachusetts, Vermont and California, have seen similar bills introduced, or bills are about to be introduced, LaSalle said. A number of countries — Canada, Australia, Spain and Germany, among others — have facilities like these.

The war on drugs isn’t working, Morhaim said. It’s time for a different approach, or at least several approaches.

“The public likes to have silver bullets, one size fits all,” he said. “Well, it’s more nuanced that that.”

Morhaim actually introduced these bills last session with just one other co-sponsor. Though LaSalle said advocates are buckled in for a multiyear fight, they’re heartened by the exponential uptick in interest and support.

And yet both Morhaim and LaSalle know already what some of the arguments against will be: that the sites would be encouraging drug use and bring crime to the neighborhoods that house them.

“They get people into an area where they have a chance for therapeutic connection, and that’s the advantage,” Morhaim said. “What it’s recognizing is reality.”

Research seems to be on his side. Studies of the first North American site in Vancouver, Canada, for instance, found no increase in crime, a decrease in public injecting and loose syringes and increase in the use of detox or addiction treatment among patients.

Baltimore City Police spokesman T.J. Smith said the department hasn’t taken a stance on these bills at this time, but this week the department took its own steps in addressing addiction that indicate a shift in approach similar to Morhaim’s. The three-year pilot Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, or LEAD, will take some of those stopped for low-level drug and prostitution offenses and divert them into social services or treatment programs. It is the same program Seattle had implemented prior to the city’s recent move to set up safe drug consumption sites.

Morhaim emphasized that of course he’s against drug use, but the old ways of combating drug addiction aren’t working. It’s time for new thinking, he said.

“The numbers speak for themselves, and I think that’s what’s important,” he added. “I’ve been in office long enough that things that seem radical at the time become accepted.”

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