Off the Hook: A Funder Takes on Heroin and Opiate Addiction

The Laura and John Arnold Foundation is always interesting to watch. On the one hand, it's on a long-term Holy Grail quest to fundamentally improve the quality of research and public policy decision making, pouring millions into a range of projects across various areas, as we often report. To repeat once again: This is a funder less interested in solving specific problems than in overhauling how society solves problems. 

On the other hand, though, LJAF can be opportunistic, getting involved in high-profile issues. Even though this foundation's head can seem to be in a bit in the clouds sometimes, it's hardly immune from the more typical funder impulse to want to do something, and fast, about urgent social problems—especially if it can advance its larger goals along the way. 

A case in point: The foundation recently announced more than $1 million in grants to address the heroin and opiate epidemic, reportedly one of the worst drug crises in American history.

It may seem that prescription opiate medications like oxycodone (OxyContin) and hydrocodone (Vicodin) get a lot of the press in the last few years, but heroin is still going strong. According to LJAF, deaths from heroin overdose increased an astounding 439 percent over the last two decades, with an estimated 28,000 people dying every year as a result of opioids.

In addition, tens of thousands of heroin and opioid users are incarcerated, putting additional strain and costs on the criminal justice system and the public, as well as the families of the imprisoned.

In fact, LJAF says its opioid-related grants arose through its longstanding initiatives to improve the nation's criminal justice system.

The opioid programs LJAF funded are designed to help low-level offenders get treatment to kick their habits and avoid committing the crimes that are so often related to drug abuse.  

Two of the programs provide medication assisted treatment (MAT) to eligible offenders in Wake County, North Carolina and in King County, Washington. The third targets the west side of Chicago, said to be one of the nation’s largest heroin markets, diverting certain individuals into treatment instead of arresting them.

LJAF's drug program grants include $339,516 to Duke University, $495,373 to the University of Washington and $199,367 to The University of Chicago.

As is characteristic of LJAF, the programs will seek to back solid data about the systemic problems that drive drug addiction and drug-related crime, issues like recidivism, cycles of addiction and criminal activity, and the use of treatment rather than arrest and the courts as a social response to drug usage.

It doesn't take an expert to recognize that our country has long been arbitrary or irrational when it comes to drugs and the law, making some (like marijuana) illegal while addictions like nicotine and alcohol take a far heavier toll. We don't tend to throw cigarette smokers in jail, but we're eager to help them quit. Similarly, we don't stigmatize people who follow programs like AA to get a handle on their drinking problems. So LJAF's goal to develop evidence-based responses to drug crime—fixing the root of opiate and heroin addictions, rather than to make criminals out of addicts—is a more rational direction.