In the 1600s, drinking coffee in Spain was a crime punishable by death. You can imagine the conversation that led to some ancient legislature deciding it was a good law to have. "Some of those barbarians from the New World with that habit may assault our wives." Or "Without such a law, what message are we sending to our children?!"
We, too, have made choices a lot like that coffee law. We have let the fear of the known harm caused by problem drugs govern our decisions regarding those drugs. For instance, we have decided that morphine made from opium is good and that heroin made from opium is bad. Thus, although some physicians feel that heroin is a better pain killer than morphine, doctors cannot legally administer heroin. Also despite a lack of evidence, we have decided that the use of marijuana is an evil way-station to a debilitating life of drug addiction and therefore its possession is a crime.
A look through history shows us that drugs have been a part of many societies for millennia. We know that opium has been used for religious and recreational purposes for over 6,000 years.
We learned during prohibition that alcohol use did not go away and that crime syndicates controlled its distribution and sales just as they do now with illegal drugs.
Folks, drug use — illegal or not — is not going away.
But our laws are still speaking to the faint hope that we can create a "drug-free society." Current policies focus resources on interdiction and incarceration. Our government spends over $50 billion a year trying to prevent illegal drugs from entering our country, but drugs continue to flow into our communities. In Connecticut, arresting those who are simply selling these drugs has led to a $700 million-dollar-a-year Department of Corrections budget.
Perhaps it is time to consider a fundamental shift in policy. If we decriminalized, controlled, regulated and taxed drugs, imagine the resources that could be freed up to reduce drug problems in our communities through prevention and expanded and effective treatment programs. Our city's criminally controlled $42 million drug market steals money from expanded community policing programs, more youth programs, and increased attention to quality of life issues caused by drugs.
In trying to create a more realistic drug policy, we should ask the following questions:
•Why should we be concerned what people put into their bodies, absent harm to others?
•Would Presidents Clinton, Bush or Obama be better off if they had been arrested for marijuana use and had lifetime felony records?
•Since illegal drug use is approximately equal in incidence across all economic, social and ethnic/racial strata, what would society think if the arrests and imprisonments for it also were equally allocated?
•What regulations would be needed to avoid the potentially negative consequences of legalizing drug use?
•What would be the effect on Hartford's economy of the removal of criminal control of illegal drugs?
•How would we redirect the billions of dollars we'd save by stopping the drug war?
If we are able to recognize that attaining a drug-free society is not going to happen in anyone's lifetime, then we can direct our energies to reducing the harm that drugs cause.
Whether we are discussing nicotine, alcohol or currently illegal drugs, we must avoid emotional, fear-driven responses in favor of thoughtful, scientifically sound, solution-oriented approaches. Communities should be discussing these strategies.
Dr. Robert Painter, a retired surgeon, is a member of the Hartford city council.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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