Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg released a plan on Friday that would decriminalize the possession of all drugs as a way to address the nation’s opioid crisis and improve mental health care. Under his plan, titled “Healing and Belonging in America: A Plan to Improve Mental Health Care and Combat Addiction,” a Buttigieg administration would seek in its first term to treat addiction and the opioid epidemic as public health problems instead of criminal justice issues.
“To ensure that people with a mental illness or substance use disorder can heal, we will decriminalize these conditions,” the plan reads. “When someone is undergoing a crisis or is caught using a drug, they should be treated by a health professional rather than punished in a jail cell.”
Buttigieg’s plan also includes criminal justice reforms such as reducing prison sentences for other drug offenses, expunging convictions for past drug possession offenses, and retroactively reducing the sentences for offenders currently in prison. By taking these and other measures, Buttigieg hopes to reduce the number of people incarcerated due to mental illness and drug addiction by 75 percent in his first term.
Addressing the Opioid Crisis
The proposal notes the devastating effects caused by the nation’s ongoing opioid crisis.
“In the past two decades alone, almost 450,000 people have died due to opioid overdose. By the end of this year, almost nine times as many will have died as the total number of U.S. military deaths during the Vietnam War,” reads the introduction to Buttigieg’s plan. “This crisis leaves a harrowing impact far beyond rising death rates. For every person that dies from opioid overdose, countless others are living with opioid use disorder. Family members, friends, and neighbors are deeply affected. Families are being torn apart; since 2000, the number of children placed in foster care due to their parent’s opioid use has doubled to nearly 100,000.”
Buttigieg’s plan would address the opioid crisis by improving access to the overdose emergency treatment drug naloxone and supporting needle exchange programs to help save lives.
“Harm reduction programs are a critical part of any effective response to the opioid and injection drug use crisis,” the proposal asserts. “They minimize the negative impact of drug use without encouraging it, while reducing other side effects of drug use. In particular, this means access to syringe service programs for people who inject drugs, that link them to treatment, and provides access to sterile syringes. These programs help prevent transmission of HIV, viral hepatitis, and other infectious diseases associated with needle sharing, and reduce overdoses by deploying medication such as naloxone that help reverse the effects of opioids.”
Buttigieg’s plan, which also includes several proposals to improve mental health care, isn’t the first time the presidential candidate has called for reform of the nation’s drug laws. Last month in an address to the Rainbow PUSH Coalition in Chicago, Buttigieg said that legalizing cannabis and other reforms could reduce mass incarceration in the United States.
“I believe we can and must achieve a 50 percent reduction in incarceration in this country without an increase in crime,” said Buttigieg. “We can do it by legalizing marijuana and eliminating incarceration for simple drug possession.”