If Mallory Kathleen Maxey had been born in Switzerland, it is likely she would be alive today. But she had the bad luck of being born in the United States.
We don't tend to think of being born here as a disadvantage, and that is particularly true when one reflects on how many millions of people try to enter this country every year—legally or otherwise. They come here because, as one of the least corrupt nations on earth, America is the envy of the world in terms of individual rights and the rule of law.
But one of the ways in which we might as well be living in the developing world is our treatment, or, should I say, non-treatment of drug addicts. Here in America, we view those caught in the vise grip of addiction as either criminals or sinners, with prison or indifference being our only two responses. In this era of bipartisan support for prison reform, true change will happen only if we are also willing to discuss remedies for drug addiction, which is a principle driver of incarceration rates.
If you do not recognize Mallory's name, it is because you missed the heartbreaking account last spring by Commercial Appeal journalist Ron Maxey of the first anniversary of her death from a heroin overdose — shortly before her 27th birthday. I thought about her as I read a recent report about the increasing number of heroin deaths here in our region.
And why might she still be alive had she been born in Switzerland, or Portugal, or any number of other European countries? Because there, drug addicts are seen as patients deserving of care and compassion rather than condemnation and punishment.
In Switzerland, if you are a registered heroin addict, you are allowed to get your pharmaceutical-grade heroin free of charge at a clean, safe clinic. And each time you are injected by a medical professional, you are offered treatment. You may decline help, and there are no punishments forthcoming — other than the punishment that is drug addiction itself.
In countries where decriminalization has been tried, overdose deaths and homelessness have declined, as have the property crimes associated with feeding one's habit. Treatment is up dramatically, and the degradation that comes with doing whatever must be done to acquire the next fix is eliminated. Too, it doesn't take a math prodigy to see how much money isn't being spent on the extensive law enforcement system that is necessary to keep drug use "criminal."
By the way, even European opponents of decriminalization have had to admit that none of the doomsday scenarios they predicted came true.
Experts in the field of heroin addiction explain that an overdose is more likely when an addict begins using again after a period of abstinence. This is because the amount necessary to achieve the desired results when using regularly is higher, and so it is easy to misjudge the dose. Which is probably why Mallory, like so many other addicts, died just when she seemed to be turning her life around.
Winston Churchill said: "You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they've tried everything else." Like so many problems here in the richest country on earth, we reject the idea that America can be taught anything by anyone else in the world, whether it is universal single-payer health care, an affordable college education for our young, or to see drug addiction as a public health issue rather than a criminal one.
The drug war has cost billions of dollars and done nothing to stem either the supply or the demand, making criminals out of vast numbers of our poor, while consigning wealthier addicts to a life of misery and likely early death. All in the name of some Puritanical idea of morality that says addicts are transgressors who must feel the sting of the lash in order to find redemption.
Maxey ended by saying that if telling his family's story would help just one person, then there might be good to come of it. So let's help him find some meaning in the loss of his beloved Mallory and perhaps save other parents from a similar nightmare by talking about the myriad solutions that have been utilized successfully elsewhere and begin implementing them here.
But first we must abandon our stupid ways of dealing with addiction instead of abandoning the addicts and those who love them.
Shouldn't a "Christian" nation already be doing this?
Ruth Ogles Johnson is a frequent contributor to the Flyer.