Encouraging Bad Behavior by Curing a Consequence


Sometimes the legislation flowing through the Rhode Island General Assembly each year takes the form of series, with tweaks and additions to particular areas of law building on each other.  One such series involves opioid abuse and overdose, with a subset for increasing (even mandating) the availability of emergency drugs to save people from overdoses.  Unfortunately, Robert VerBruggen reports for National Review that this trend may have an undesired outcome:

Are Anti-Overdose Drugs Backfiring?

Yes, says an incredibly depressing new study. It suggests that opioid abuse rises when overdose-reversing drugs are easily accessible.

This could happen through two different mechanisms: “(1) saving the lives of active drug users, who survive to continue abusing opioids, and (2) reducing the risk of death per use, thereby making riskier opioid use more appealing.” (1) isn’t a bad thing, even though we would obviously prefer that addicts quit after nearly dying. But (2) is a serious problem, as it could mean that overdose-reversing drugs don’t actually save lives on balance.

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Obviously, this finding (if further study validates it) doesn’t prove that we shouldn’t strive to save lives, but it should lead us to be humble as we attempt to use government to fix society’s problems.  I mean, think of the choices that pile on each other:  We decide that we’re going to use government to make anti-overdose drugs more readily available, and that increases drug abuse.  This can get very expensive for other people very quickly, whether through taxes or health insurance premiums.  Those resources necessarily have to come from elsewhere.

Perhaps to mitigate the financial and human cost, somebody will propose that anybody whose life is thus saved must be committed to a facility for recovery.  Now, suddenly, we’re saving lives only to institutionalize people who may relapse once they’re let out, and when they do, they’ll have incentive to take their drugs in a more concealed environment.  What then?  Further erode their privacy?  Or create safe places in which they can do their drugs, thus increasing the ease of drug usage?

Frankly, I’m not sure where I land on this series of questions, but it wouldn’t be irrational or inhumane to go back to the start of it and suggest keeping government out altogether.  At least that would focus our attention on the social arena in which the solution to the problem ultimately lies.