Politicians, academics and former police press for a more candid discussion about the costs of criminalizing drugs
by Alan Bisbort
August 17, 2010
When Clifford Thornton was two weeks shy of graduating high school in 1963, a Hartford police officer showed up at his grandmother’s door one Sunday morning. The cop asked Thornton to accompany him to a nearby field. There, inside an abandoned car, was the body of Thornton’s mother, dead of an apparent heroin overdose.
“No words can describe how I felt,” says Thornton. “But, as I came to my senses, one thought resonated: all illegal drugs should be eradicated from the face of the earth.”
As the years passed, though, Thornton noticed that the exact opposite was occurring in Hartford. That is, as more money and police effort was funneled to the “war on drugs,” more and different drugs were flooding into Hartford — and more Hartford residents were being sent off to prison, the disproportionate number “black and brown.”
This was not a figment of his imagination. Connecticut currently has about 17,000 prison inmates with another 50,000 on parole. “Black and Latino men make up less than 6 percent of the state’s population, but account for 68 percent of the prison population,” says Thornton, who with his wife Margaret founded Efficacy, an organization advocating for drug-policy reform. “It costs $600 million a year to run the state prison system. That money could be better spent.”
This is not just happening in Connecticut. In 1975, the incarceration rate in the U.S. was 100 per 100,000 people, a rate that hadn’t changed much in the previous half century. Since 1975, the incarceration rate has climbed to 700 per 100,000. This dramatic increase is due to drugs. Since Richard Nixon declared his “war on drugs,” drug arrests have increased 1,100 percent. Eighty percent of all arrests are drug related; eighty percent of the prison sentences for “drug offenses” are for possession (read: non-violent users). If the goal was to reduce use and availability, we have lost the war. Drugs are more readily available and more dangerous than ever. Hartford is just one more battlefield in this lost cause, like Bridgeport, Waterbury, et al.
The final straw for Thornton — who, if anyone should hate drugs forever, he would be the person — came when a former co-worker was convicted on a drug conspiracy charge and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Thornton believes the man was framed and unfairly convicted. Thornton took early retirement soon thereafter and devoted his life to this cause.
“This issue has been pushing me for three decades,” says Thornton, the 2006 Green Party gubernatorial candidate who now lives in Glastonbury. “This has to stop because kids can now get illegal drugs more easily, and more cheaply, than legal drugs tobacco and alcohol.” For a population of 30,000, Thornton estimates Glastonbury spends somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.5 million a year for the war on drugs. “This is the insanity we are dealing with.”
Thornton’s belief that the drug war in Hartford is a bust now has some persuasive allies. For one, statistics are on his side. A recent report prepared by Dr. Robert Painter, under the direction of Central Connecticut State University’s Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy, bears this out. Despite its unassuming title (“Compilation of local costs of Connecticut’s current drug Policies”), the report offers a stiff dose of Hartford’s daily reality. Painter and his co-author Dr. Susan Pease, CCSU’s Arts and Sciences dean, take a pragmatic, rather than hysterical view: “It is time to examine the cost associated with the enforcement of current drug laws to determine whether the outcome justifies resources expended.”
In a word, their answer is “No.”
It’s not as if Painter’s and Pease’s conclusions — similar to those of Thornton’s — come as a surprise, but the numbers still boggle the mind. Using a method developed by Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron, they determined that the annual cost of the drug war to the Hartford Police Department is $21,933,814; the cost to state taxpayers to imprison Hartford’s drug arrestees, $14,020,621; probation and parole for same costs another $10 million, and another $7.5 million goes to half way and transitional houses. Homicide costs are $34,253,783, overdose death costs are $25 million. And, finally, the taxes lost that were not collected from the $42 million in annual drug sales in Hartford — a conservative estimate in Thornton’s view — would have amounted to more than $8 million.
When asked about Painter’s and Pease’s report, Nancy Mulroy, a Hartford Police Department spokesperson, says that the chief had not seen it and would look it over and perhaps respond. About the “drug war” itself, Mulroy says, “The word ‘war’ makes it sound so trite or outdated. We target drug-driven crime in Hartford and, in particular, gun possession, by seizing weapons from people we know who have been involved with violence. We start in the spring trying to get the guns off the street. But the sources for guns in Hartford are so varying.”
Whether or not the current campaigns against drugs in Hartford constitute a “war,” Mulroy points to the weekly crime statistics that are posted on the Hartford Police Department website (hartford.gov/police). She says, “We are not going to win any war by ourselves and any so-called war on drugs will not have to just be won in Hartford.”
Painter, a former Hartford City Council minority leader and director of surgery at St. Francis Hospital, has witnessed the drug war from a unique perspective.
“As a surgeon, I did a lot of trauma work and I always worried that the gunshot victims might be addicts or that someone would burst into the emergency room to finish the job,” says Painter, now retired. “But it wasn’t until I was on the city council that I saw almost every ill that we talked about was related in some way to the drug war. Whether it was education, unemployment, housing, you name it.”
Because drugs, and the hysteria and ignorance surrounding them, are so pervasive, Painter convened a national conference at Trinity College in 2005.
“I got tired of hearing one side say, ‘Well, we should just legalize everything and the problems would go away’ and the other side say, ‘We need more money, more prisons, lock all druggies up.’ Neither is a profitable position from which to talk about the huge problem of drugs. Thus, the report for CCSU was my attempt to attack the issue strictly by the numbers.”
Painter’s preference is not, he insists, “to get people softened to the idea of legalizing drugs” but, rather, to offer them as much hard factual data and informed material so that they can make rational decisions. The implied message is this: Do we really want to continue pouring this kind of money into something that is only getting worse?
“We need another plan,” Painter says. “Let’s look to other countries, find out where policies have worked. But let’s NOT approach this as a Republican vs. Democrat, liberal vs. conservative thing. It’s not one of those issues. It’s destroying our city, state and country.”
“This economic report coming from a university helps give the issue credibility,” says Thornton. “Not that it didn’t have it before, but a university’s input helps dispel the fear of talking about it. The law enforcement community also brings credibility.”
Thornton points to Joseph Brooks, who spent 30 years with the Manchester Police Department. Brooks commanded the Tritown Narcotics Task Force, for Manchester, Vernon and South Windsor. From that vantage point he saw the impact of the drug war on the communities, families and the entire social structure.
“We knew we had strong drug traffic in Manchester that wasn’t being addressed,” says Brooks. “We were successful at first, arresting 33 people in our first raid. The problem was that those arrested were our neighbors and friends, solid citizens who believed smoking a joint was no worse than drinking a can of beer. It was very upsetting to see them in this predicament.”
Then, there was the animosity this generated in the community, where former friends were now “enemies.”
“This anger and bitterness is an important and overlooked part of the fallout from the drug war,” says Brooks. “The police are forced to implement ill-conceived policies. They’re not living up to ‘protect and serve.’”
The long-term effects — or “downstream costs,” as Painter and Pease say — are profound. When someone is sent to jail for drug possession, chances are that they are a family provider.
“Say they’ve got two kids,” says Brooks. “Who’s going to take care of those kids while they’re locked up? They will go on welfare, and we end up paying for the imprisonment of the wage earner plus the welfare needed to support the family. How are we gaining from this?”
“Bill Clinton and George Bush both used drugs,” says Painter. “Would their lives have been improved if they’d been caught and given a year in prison? Well, one out of every six kids in Hartford has a close relative in prison. We are destroying families.”
Brooks is a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), an organization based in Medford, Mass., comprising members of the law enforcement and criminal justice networks who believe current drug policies have failed.
“We have spent more than $1 trillion in the U.S. on this war and are working on a second trillion now,” says Brooks. “Cops all over the country have been killed in drug raids. When my officers went into houses on raids, I went with them. We often found guns, which scared me. Drug dealers were preparing for violence, from other drug dealers, from buyers and, of course, from the police. That is just a crazy situation.”
Brooks has recounted his experiences in the front lines for hundreds of audiences.
“What I normally say when I am giving a speech is that it’s too bad that hypocrisy was not currency because if so we would never have a budget deficit,” he says. “The hypocrisy in the federal versus the state laws regarding medical marijuana is just one example. Fourteen states have said yes to medical pot but the feds are still busting state growers.”
Brooks believes that the misconceptions about drugs that most members of the general public have begins with the most familiar one: marijuana.
“It is not a gateway drug, never has been,” he says. “Gateway drugs start long before pot. They start with cigarettes and alcohol and now we have a pharmaceutical problem. Kids are breaking into medical cabinets for their parents’ Oxycontin and Vicodin.”
Brooks is particularly disdainful of elected officials using drugs for political gain.
“The marijuana bill [the Compassionate Use Act, HB 6715, which would have allowed medical use of marijuana] was passed by the state house and senate but vetoed by Gov. Rell, who talked about ‘gateway’ drugs,” he says. “I will never believe she made that decision from anything other than a political position. It was not a moral decision. We in the drug-war arena know that gateway drug talk is B.S.”
Painter also sees a misconception about heroin addiction, and the hysterical fears of a zombie army of junkies roaming the streets.
“The heroin addiction rate in this country is 1.3 percent and has remained steady for the past century,” he says. “We are going to have heroin addicts no matter what we do. We are going to have alcoholics and nicotine addicts too and a lot of recreational use of these drugs. Finding drugs in urine is a violation of parole. We will never get rid of this scourge by sending people to prison for drugs in their urine. It’s ridiculous. If they rob, OK, send them back. But so many people are in jail on technicalities, for dirty urine. What have we gained?”
Talk of the problems with drug sentencing eventually leads to the subject of prison policy. Brooks likes to cite the TV show “Lock Up” in which a squad does nothing but go through mail to find out how the drugs are getting inside the prison.
“If we can’t keep drugs out of the most secure places in the country, how are we going to keep them off the streets? It is just unrealistic, a fantasy, to think that we can have a drug-free society,” says Brooks, then adds, “The privatization of prisons is partly to blame. What’s the best way to make a profit? By keeping the prison cells full. What’s the best way to fill prison cells? Arrest and convict non-violent drug offenders, who will quietly serve their time.”
LEAP’s most controversial point of advocacy is legalization.
“LEAP is arguing for legalization,” says Brooks, mincing no words. “We would like to see all drugs legalized, controlled and medicalized.”
Surprisingly, perhaps, Brooks is hearing more support for this from those most affected by the drug plague: the inner city communities.
LaResse Harvey, for one, is on board with this idea. Policy director for Hartford-based A Better Way Foundation, Harvey works with community groups and families for a “sensible shift in drug policy” throughout the state. After major drug busts — like recent DEA-collaborative sweeps in Hartford, New Britain and Waterbury — she hears from 20 or 30 new families whose father, husband or brother have been removed to a jail cell for possession of drugs. All of this is, in her view, a colossal waste of resources.
“We need to be proactive instead of reactive,” says Harvey, her voice rising. “We need to transfer these resources into schools. We lost 2,000 teachers in Connecticut in the last year. Rather than have hundreds of correctional officers paid to babysit adults in jails, they should be used to implement programs at treatment centers. The Department of Corrections has failed at its job. It was created to ‘correct’ adverse behaviors.”
Though there are loud voices in the community raised against legalization or even decriminalization — and the NAACP recently created an uproar among black church groups by supporting California Proposition 19, aka the “Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010” — Harvey has a ready answer.
“When members of the religious community raise protests against drug reform, all I can do is educate them with the facts,” she says. “Look at the pews inside your own churches. What do you see? A lot of women, single parents, or mothers and wives whose husbands are serving time for drugs. They are raising kids without fathers. What happened to all the men inside the churches? They got caught in the drug wars.”
Economic conditions have made people more receptive to the idea, which further gets Harvey worked up. “People are saying we need to do something about this because of the economy, but I say no, we need to do it because it has to be done. We are losing entire generations of young men.”
Brooks cites a successful Swiss program that “medicalized” heroin for addicts 12 years ago. Clinics were established where addicts could be examined by doctors and have a stabilizing dose determined for them. They are given their daily injections with clean needles and under medical supervision. Brooks says that it has had “amazing results,” resulting in a 60 percent drop in crime, practically eliminated overdoses and nearly eradicated the HIV problem.
“A lot of patients went back to their families,” he says. “They are no longer living under bridges or on the street, scrounging for money to feed their habits. Many went back to work, all because this was treated as a medical problem. It all comes back to politics and money.”
Brooks knows that legalization is a hard sell.
“LEAP is saying that whether you agree or not, we’ve been there. And we aren’t saying that drug problems are not going to stop if the drugs are legalized just the way that alcoholism did not stop when Prohibition ended. Isn’t it time after 40 years and $1 trillion that we look at something more productive?”
Painter would be happy just to have a more open and honest dialogue.
He says, “There is no guarantee that the level of drug-related violence seen in Mexico won’t happen here. Why wait to test that out? Let’s help lawmakers, give them some cover by ratcheting down the hysteria and rhetoric. Let’s help police departments realign their priorities.”
Painter would like to see other “small steps” taken now, like treating drug addicts for their addictions in prison and, if at all possible, finding somewhere to send addicts for medical treatment for their habits rather than prison cells.
“Right now, the only treatments available are 12-step programs and detoxification. You could have been treated for years with methadone and end up in prison and you will be detoxed from the medicine that has kept you alive,” he says. “Would you take away insulin from a diabetic? Among the stupid reasons for taking away methadone is that we want to promote a drug-free ethic in prison, which is crazy, since 80 percent of the inmates are drug users.”
Painter sees some openness to these ideas in the legislature and state agencies.
“There are people inside these agencies [DCF, Mental Health] who are looking at these things. We need to make some little steps,” he says. “A good start would be to get rid of three-strikes laws all over the country, which are just stupid.”
Thornton is in favor of legalization, but with a disclaimer. His “Restorative Justice” program (which can be found at the Efficacy website) states that “Legalization without indemnification is totally irresponsible. If you legalize drugs and then walk away, it could be worse. Something has to replace that underground economy in Hartford and in every other town and city where drugs are sold and money made.”
Thornton has a few words for Connecticut’s gubernatorial candidates. He points out that it costs about $100 to produce a pound of heroin; that pound on the streets of Hartford is worth about $60,000. “My statement to the candidates is, seeing as how they’re talking jobs, jobs and more jobs, legitimate economic investment can never be more profitable than prohibition-induced drug trafficking or cultivation.”
No matter what the future holds, Thornton will keep the drug-reform dialogue alive.
“Fear of talking about reforming drug policy promotes intellectual dishonesty,” he says.