WASHINGTON -- Former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass) hasn't changed his general philosophy toward the criminalization of certain drugs, even in the wake of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman's death from a suspected heroin overdose. If a substance doesn't pose a danger to anyone but the user, then it should be legalized and regulated, Frank says. That includes heroin.
"It doesn't make sense for society to prohibit the substance because it causes deaths," Frank said in an interview with The Huffington Post. "I have read about more alcohol-related deaths than heroin-related deaths."
One of the more outspoken critics of the war on drugs, Frank has argued for heroin’s legalization and regulation in the past. Several months ago, he offered a theoretical test for determining whether a substance should be outlawed. “If it affects me,” he said, then it is “none of your business.” But if it “affects the way I deal with other people,” then there is a case for prohibition. As Frank sees it, heroin only affects the person using it, except for when he or she feels compelled to steal money to purchase the drug.
But that alone is not a strong case for prohibition, Frank said at the time. And neither, in his estimation, is Hoffman’s death.
“I'm sorry that he did it. I still think the laws should be that we will not make you a criminal if you decide to ingest a substance that does not make you likelier to cause damage to other people,” Frank said.
"If it is regulated and legally available for people, I don't see any reason to think that would produce more deaths than we now have," he added, pointing out that heroin was illegal when Hoffman died.
Frank was an anomaly in Congress. The only other lawmaker who was as outspoken about legalizing certain drugs was Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), who is no longer in office either. Ironically, since Frank and Paul left Washington, D.C., attitudes toward drug use have softened. The legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington state hasn’t produced the type of political hysteria that some anticipated. And recently, President Barack Obama noted that pot use is no more dangerous than alcohol consumption, though official administration policy still does not reflect that belief.
But Frank would like to see the conversation evolve even further. Moments after his interview with The Huffington Post ended, he called back to elaborate on his point. He had been sitting in an airport terminal, browsing through a copy of The Economist, when he stumbled across an article about how the governments in Switzerland and the Netherlands were “tackling heroin abuse through 'harm-reduction' policies, rather than tougher policing.”
These policies involve a combination of decriminalization, medical supervision and investment in substance abuse treatment. And they tend to be effective.
“The evidence suggests that [Heroin Assisted Treatment] slashes heroin-related deaths and HIV infection, since users are shooting up under medical supervision,” the article reads. “It also drastically reduces heroin-related crime, since addicts have no need to steal or sell their bodies to get money for their fix. Some studies find that HAT actually works better than methadone or buprenorphine. Heroin use is falling steadily in both Switzerland and the Netherlands; by the late 2000s the Dutch incidence of new heroin users had fallen close to zero, and the ageing population of addicts from the 1970s and 1980s continues to shrink.”
“They seem to be working well,” Frank said, before briskly hanging up the phone.