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We’re Still Calling it a War?

By Kerri Provost

May 13, 2011

To frame anything in terms of war is to approach the situation with a failing strategy. We see this with actual wars, where the outcome is destruction, injury, rape, and death; the economy might get a temporary boost and the “winners” gain results through coercion. Look at the “War on Terrorism.” People and places are being destroyed, but is anything being done to address ideologies of terrorism? Has LBJ’s “War on Poverty” done anything to change the conditions in this country which create poverty? As with all the others, the “War on Drugs” resembles actual wars — lots of casualties, with only a handful of people experiencing real gains.

So, as leadership is stepping away from the decades’ old approach, why are decriminalization discussions still using the outmoded terminology? How we frame any issue is going to color our preconceived notions walking into a discussion; when I first saw the title of Friday morning’s community dialogue — “The Drug War: Is it time to change strategies?” — at the Mark Twain House and Museum, I had to wonder why this language was still being used, as a shift in strategies has already begun. A quick look at national policy shows a hierarchy of prevention, intervention, and recovery above incarceration. That’s on the federal level, though. Is any of this trickling down to local efforts to deal with a very real drug problem?

I’m not alone. During the question and response period of the Key Issues Forum, an audience member said that the “terminology is wrong,” citing the same examples as provided above. This man spoke about his experience growing up in a neighborhood where much of the drug trade sprang out of “middle class values with welfare money.” He said that selling drugs was not about being broke, but due to “self-esteem,” and wanting a certain type of lifestyle. If we talk about this in terms of war, then we would essentially need to declare war on the culture of conspicuous consumption which has become synonymous with “American lifestyle.” Anyone about to do that is going to get slapped with the label of “socialist.”

Another member of the audience spoke about her child’s addiction. This woman said she was from suburbia. Her child was raised by two parents and was taught to not use drugs, yet the adult child is recovering. How is some declaration of war going to look in this case? Are we going to fight middle class, suburban families?

The terminology is ludicrous.

For 2011, as of publication, over $15 billion in federal and state dollars have been spent on the so-called drug war; in the past forty years, the expenditure has been over $1.5 trillion. As consumers, we expect something in return when we spend money. According to Jack Cole, a retired officer who spent much of his career undercover in narcotics, the national drug policy has purchased no positive results. Cole — on whom one of the main characters of Flipside is based – gave a presentation this morning in which he noted that the only statistic to remain the same before drugs were illegal, at the start of the “drug war,” and now, is that of addiction: 1.3% of the population. The percentage of those struggling with addiction may not have changed, but how addiction is being managed is not entirely positive. Mark Friedlander,M.D., Aetna’s Senior Medical Director, said that there is a divide in how people respond to substance abuse treatment; those over 25 have more success, where those under 25 do not respond as well to traditional treatments. Panelist Mark L. Kraus, M.D., described addiction as a “biopsychosocial disease” which is “progressive” and “in most cases will cause premature death.” Cole, of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), echoed this, saying that the organization wants “to treat this as a health problem.”

So, if locking up thousands of people every year has not done anything to reduce the amount of people whose lives are destroyed by addiction, what is there to do?

Of the panelists, only Daryl K. Roberts, Chief of Police, seemed content to fully stay the course. Kraus was reluctant to call for decriminalization, but said “the right focus is education, prevention, and treatment,” not “illegalization.”

Cole presented statistics about how Portugal, Switzerland, and the Netherlands have fared since decriminalizing and regulating drugs. They have seen decreases in addiction, drug-related violence, and HIV infection through injection drug use. He said that LEAP is interested in “a more efficient and more ethical” strategy than “a system of prohibition.” The stasis of addiction rates in the United States is about the most positive outcome that can be attributed to prohibition. Chief Roberts estimated that 85% of what the Hartford Police Department does is related to crime tied to substance abuse. This does not mean 85% of arrests are for selling/buying; this number includes robberies related to deals gone wrong, cars stolen after they are lent to dealers in place of money, etc. Resources are not available for solving serious crimes when they are tied up in drug-related investigations, yet Roberts does not see decriminalization as necessarily solving this, saying that “if any individual can not get the money to get the legalized drugs,” he is still going to be stealing and robbing in order to get money. Decriminalization of drugs might cut out the problem of violence as far as buying illegally goes, but it might not change the economy so that those with addictions are no longer stealing everything in our yards that has not been bolted down. Besides, legal prescription drugs, like Oxycontin, are abused now, Roberts explained. With that, he has a point. Alcohol and tobacco are legal, regulated, and taxed drugs which continue to be abused. Little effort seems to go into seriously addressing alcohol abuse, but tobacco has been dealt with. Cole seemed to suggest that the approach taken with tobacco would be one to replicate for currently illegal drugs. Through public education and regulation (smoking bans in most public places) tobacco use has drastically decreased in the past several decades.

But the way of dealing with drugs is clearly not working. As Cole said, “we have literally devastated certain communities” with drug enforcement policies. The statistics on racial disparities in sentencing are stark. Cole compared the U.S. incarceration rate of black versus white males for drug offenses to that of racial disparities in sentencing during Apartheid in South Africa. In 1993, under Apartheid Law, 851 black men were imprisoned per 100,000 population in South Africa. In 2008 under the Drug Prohibition Law, 6667 black men were imprisoned per 100,000 population in the United States. As Dr. Painter, one of the panelists later said, drug use is about the same across all socioeconomic categories; with that in mind, one would expect sentencing to reflect this.

There was a little disagreement about what the numbers for drug incarcerations are locally. Roberts claimed that 80% of those in state prisons are there for non-drug-related offenses, a number which several audience members audibly dismissed. Painter said that 20% of all arrests in Hartford are for drug charges. A glimpse at the arrest log on any given day can confirm this, though the number would surely expand if we included drug-motivated crimes, like theft. Right now, there’s too much instant gratification incentive for those who would sell. Painter stated that the market for drugs in Hartford is $42 million.

Knowing the extent of the problem, Roberts said that “making [drugs] legal doesn’t make them any healthier,” and that not using “comes down to discipline and self-control.” Having government regulated ingredients and doses would not magically turn heroin into something nutritious, but it would provide a more predictable result, leading to fewer overdoses. Kraus also noted that legalization would not affect certain drug-related problems, like teen pregnancy or impaired driving. An audience member suggested that police could step up arrests for driving under the influence. Would changing strategies solve every drug-related problem? Certainly not. Is this inability to address some of the issues enabling those in power to get in their own way?

Those who would like the government to regulate drugs made it clear they were not in favor of promoting them. Painter said that he “would not put that stuff in [his] body” and that the substances in question are “not benign drugs.” Cole explained that LEAP does not “want any advertising or branding” of regulated drugs.

If drugs were legalized, regulated, and taxed, $77 billion every year would go into the U.S. economy.

Reprinted with permission of Kerri Provost, author of the blog RealHartford. To view other stories on this topic, search RealHartford at http://www.realhartford.org/.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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