Why you should care

Because babies shouldn’t go through withdrawal. 

Chances are you’ll see it if you drive through small-town America: The country is in the midst of a heroin epidemic. Use among 18- to 25-year-olds has more than doubled in the last decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and for the first time, more people are dying from overdoses than car accidents. The problem is even getting play on the presidential campaign trail.

How to stop the crisis? Some police departments have gone the way of offering treatment rather than bringing criminal charges. Cincinnati hospitals are now testing all mothers and their infants for opiates. Southern states are aggressively jailing women who use while pregnant. But there may be another way. Rather than intervening after the fact — which is what we currently do and obviously doesn’t work — maybe it’s time to try something new, like preventing addicts from having children in the first place. It’s simple: legalize drugs and lace them with birth control. Or, hey, offer injectable contraceptives along with clean needles.

I can’t claim credit for this idea. For 27 years, my stepfather has been a child-welfare social worker. He serves on the frontlines, day after day, working to give the broken children of addicts at least a slight hope for stability. More often than not he fails. And on those days, he, too, seriously jokes that the answer lies in legalization and contraception. Indeed, Health and Human Services reports that more than half of all child-protection cases can be traced back to substance abuse, with children of addicts four times more likely to be subjected to neglect and trauma. “It would be like a natural selection,” says stepdad Bob Luft.

This solution would ease the strain on the child-welfare and criminal justice systems and eliminate fetal alcohol and neonatal-abstinence syndromes, and we could use the revenue generated to pay for treatment. President Obama recently allocated $133 million to address the growing heroin crisis. But even if we succeed at stemming today’s desperate straits, we’re likely to have another generation of addicts coming down the pike. The National Institutes of Health has found that genetics play a role in 50 to 60 percent of alcoholism cases.

Sure, the thought conjures fears of forced (or incentivized) sterilization. But contraception, even medium-term contraception, isn’t permanent. Besides, addiction isn’t concentrated among one ethnic or socioeconomic group, so the program wouldn’t target a minority demographic. Others would argue that legalizing drugs will lead to even more addiction, which is possible, but if you consider that 75 percent of heroin addicts started with prescription opioids before graduating to heroin, they’re already getting hooked legally. And, to be sure, this isn’t a cure-all. “Addiction is such a complex issue,” says Suzette Glasner-Edwards, author of the recently published The Addiction Recovery Skills Workbook. “There are so many other things that contribute to the expression of addiction.” True enough. But something must be done.

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