Letter to the editor: We can end the opioid crisis

A pair injects heroin. — photo by Flickr user hundred visions and revisions via Wikimedia Commons

By Marco Battaglia

Eighty-five percent of heroin users start by taking legal opioids. Fentanyl and carfentanil are involved in a clear majority of overdose deaths. Even combining these with moderate alcohol use can be deadly.

Scientists were learning the powers of synthesized opioids prior to the start of the war on drugs. You likely have not heard of carfentanil. It is a manufactured weapon in a manufactured crisis. The toxicity of carfentanil has been compared to that of nerve gas. Yet it is only classified as Schedule II under the Controlled Substances Act in the United States.

There is a better way than war and mass incarceration. Ninety percent of public money spent fighting drugs in Portugal is channeled toward health-care goals — just 10 percent is spent on police enforcement. Instead of a war on drugs, there are more than 40 publicly funded facilities across Portugal treating more than 4,000 addicts at any one time, free of charge to them. They removed the criminal penalties for all drug use and combined this action with an intense focus on harm reduction, treatment and rehabilitation.

A decade later, the number of addicts is halved, and overdose deaths have dropped to just 30 a year for the entire country. The number has remained steady ever since. Portugal’s mortality rate from drugs is now more than four times lower than the European average. Portugal’s lesson for the world is that broadly removing criminal sanctions from drug use can be the catalyst to change public attitudes about drug use and users.

So far, the Czech Republic and Uruguay are taking similar approaches. Even some among the most conservative government members of parliament in Australia are considering following suit after inquiring into crystal methamphetamine use in Portugal and learning the approach was working to curb use. Both Uruguay’s and Portugal’s violent crime rates — among the lowest in their regions — have been declining since 2015. Portugal and the Czech Republic are often considered among the safest countries in the world.

Domestically, recent marijuana legalizations in Colorado, Washington state, Oregon and Alaska have yielded positive outcomes. Numerous studies show little to no rise in marijuana use following legalization, coupled with declines in cocaine, cigarette, alcohol, meth and opioid use.

We can save many lives by phasing out the war on drugs and focusing on harm reduction. This activity is also cost effective and positive for the workforce in Iowa where we need able employees to turn our rural cities around and to continue our successes in urban areas.

Marco Battaglia is running for Attorney General of Iowa. You can keep in touch with him at

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