This year, the Tennessee House of Representatives convened the House Task Force on Opioid and Prescription Abuse.  The task force recently made public its recommendations.

I want to start by applauding House leadership and the task force members for taking up this important issue. Many of the recommendations place a welcomed emphasis on prevention and treatment. The task force called for expansion of access to medically assisted treatment and increased restrictions on prescription practices. I was particularly encouraged by the recommendation that the state expand participation in recovery courts, as well as the Naltrexone grant program to include county jail inmates. These reforms, if implemented, are certainly welcome and reinforce that tackling the opioid epidemic cannot be solved primarily by the criminal justice system.

The task force’s call for a crackdown on the illicit supply of opioids trafficked in the state is also on point. It has recommended that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations be allocated funds for 25 additional investigators.

However, one recommendation gives me pause. The task for calls for “enhanced penalties for and enforcement efforts against offenses involving opioids, including Fentanyl.” While this recommendation is broadly written, I strongly urge lawmakers to limit the effect of any such policy to high-level trafficking offenses only. Indeed, incarcerating opioid users will neither deter nor treat opioid abuse disorder.

The pathway to remedial solution to the opioid crisis is to understand that it is primarily a public health crisis. The demand for opioids that fuels the illicit market will only be contained and remedied epidemiologically, not through criminal sanctions. Where the demand is concerned, the criminal justice system should limit its role to diverting nonviolent drug users into treatment. Its role should not be expanded in a futile attempt to incarcerate a disease.