To End Opioid Crisis, We Must Rely on More than "Just Say No"

State and federal policymakers must invest critical funds in promising treatment approaches and compassionate care.

Proven, evidence-based treatment for addiction—and strategies such as medication-assisted treatment (MAT)—can significantly reduce deaths, especially when they are available at various stages of the justice system. MAT programs use medication (methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone) in addition to counseling and behavioral therapy to treat substance use disorders.

If state and federal policymakers are serious about implementing meaningful reform to mitigate one of the worst drug crises in American history, they need to invest critical funds in promising treatment approaches and compassionate care, and not rely on high-profile advertisement campaigns like the failed “Just Say No” strategy.

These evidence-based strategies are already successfully being implemented in some of the places hit hardest by the opioid crisis.

A report Vera will release in the coming weeks describes how West Virginia, which leads the nation in opioid use and overdose deaths, is both an epicenter of the opioid crisis and a promising case study of how the justice system can improve its response. As a result of the state’s participation in the federal Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), West Virginia passed the Justice Reinvestment Act and a series of other laws from 2013 to 2016 that paved the way for a significant investment in community-based treatment, including MAT programs throughout the criminal justice process.

While recent efforts nationwide are still at an early stage, the key to their success will rely in part on removing the stigma and lack of understanding around addiction that forces an emphasis on abstinence-based programs, rather than MAT programs. Put simply, America's approach to the opioid crisis isn't working because it treats addiction as a crime rather than as a public health problem. To successfully end the crisis, that must change.