Don’t be afraid to call for help — that is the message of Michigan’s medical amnesty law. That was the message I was told time and time again upon arriving at the University of Michigan my freshman year. Michigan’s medical amnesty legislation, which passed in 2012, exempts intoxicated minors from being charged with underage drinking — something that would become permanent on school and criminal records — if they, or their friends, voluntarily seek and then do not resist medical assistance. By enacting this law, the state of Michigan took a crucial step in reframing the conversation as one of solving a public health concern rather than one of criminalizing users through punitive punishment. In fact, this legislature has paved the way for nuanced amnesty laws as well.

Recently, the Michigan legislature passed two bills that could change how we tackle illegal drug use. For the past year, Michigan has granted medical amnesty to individuals under the age of 21 seeking medical assistance for a drug overdose. New state legislation is attempting to expand these legal protections. On Sept. 20, House Bill 5649 and House Bill 5650 were sent to Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk after passing through the Michigan House of Representatives and State Senate. The concurrent bills, similar to medical amnesty laws for underage drinkers, exempt individuals of any age seeking medical attention for a drug overdose from facing charges — not just those of us who are underage.

The implementation of new drug laws in Michigan comes at the height of a major increase in illicit drug use in the state. Heroin and opioid use have been increasing in Washtenaw County, according the Washtenaw County Public Health Department. Washtenaw County saw more than 400 residents overdose from 2011 to 2015, with 65 deaths in 2014 alone.

In fact, it is not only Michigan that is seeing this alarming rise in drug use. Currently, we are seeing a significant increase in opiate use in the United States overall. A study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, published in January, stated that the number of deaths caused by drug overdoses has increased by 137 percent since 2000. While not all drug overdoses are fatal, the increase in fatal overdoses does indicate a sharp increase in drug abuse. The report recommended increased efforts to decrease opioid use and increase treatment, calling the increase in overdose rate an epidemic. There is no question that new solutions are necessary to solve this increasing problem.

Like the medical amnesty law for underage drinking, this new drug legislation is a critical shift from conventional state drug policies rooted in the war on drugs. The war on drugs has had a plethora of impacts on American communities. The drug strategy employed during the war on drugs focuses on criminal justice sanctioning and penalizing — contributing to the United States’ massive incarceration rate. The United States holds 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population, and 50 percent of U.S. state prison inmates are held on drug law violations. Not to mention, the heavy policing of drug use disproportionately impacts Black and Latino communities. Statistically, Black people are equally as likely to use drugs as any other race. Even though they only make up 13.3 percent of the population, Black individuals make up 31.4 percent of drug charges.

The criminalization approach to drug offenses is not only displayed through incarceration rates. The makeup of police forces also demonstrates the sanctioning strategy and another laundry list of negative impacts to the war on drugs strategy. The United States has 45,000 paramilitary style SWAT raids a year — usually to search for drugs. These raids tear up homes and usually occur in communities of color. We need to shift how we handle drug use away from punitive punishment that breaks up homes and communities and move toward ways to help those suffering from addiction.

Not only are there multiple disadvantages to criminal justice strategies of drug use, primarily that they excessively target people of color, but the strategies do not even seem to be working. If militarized police forces, police targeting and incarceration were the right solutions to illicit drug use, then drug overdoses would not be on the rise.

Creating a public health approach to drug use is an important part to ending the war on drugs. Taking a medical approach to drug use would shift drug prevention from criminal justice strategies toward a medical jurisdiction. Such a shift would likely decrease incarceration rates and undercut the targeting of people of color, as drug prevention policy would shift away from a focus on militarizing law enforcement and instead emphasize prevention and treatment through education and rehabilitation programs.  

While state governments have taken measures to change the discourse on drugs and alcohol, such as Michigan’s laws that give medical amnesty to people seeking help, reframing of drug and alcohol policy must also happen at a federal level. And while the Obama administration has been more open to drug reform ideals, more needs to be done. The federal budget still called for billions of dollars in efforts to reduce drug suppliers’ access to products instead of allocating funds toward education.

Michigan’s amnesty legislation frames drug use as a public health issue. Conventional drug laws send a message that drug use is a criminal act that must be punished. Michigan’s drug amnesty laws send a message that drug abuse is a medical problem for which you can get help. It encourages individuals and bystanders to take action and request medical assistance, undercutting some of the stigma associated with seeking out help for using these substances.

In fact, these amnesty laws are not the only changes in strategies to combat drug abuse occurring in Michigan. On the local level, several police agencies, including the UM Division of Public Safety and Security, have begun requiring officers to carry the drug naloxone, which can reverse the effects of heroin drug overdose. Such a policy is very distinct from paramilitary drug raids that break up communities. Rather than disrupting communities, this approach focuses on police officers treating individuals who are abusing drugs. 

While there are still other major social and political changes that need to occur to fully reform the war on drugs criminalization strategies, I applaud the state of Michigan for taking necessary steps to address drug and alcohol abuse concerns. By reframing the way we address drug and alcohol abuse and taking a stance that does not stigmatize people as criminals, we are taking necessary steps to make everyone safer. Encouraging citizens to call for help and get treatment for overdoses is a strategy that will save lives.

Max Lubell can be reached at

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