Sun, 19 Sep 1999

Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)

Don't Get Carried Away

There Must Be A New Approach That Is Grounded Not In Ignorance Or Fear But

In Common Sense.

"So you want to legalize drugs, right?" That's the first question I'm typically asked when I start talking about drug policy reform. My short answer is, marijuana, maybe. But I'm not suggesting we make heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine available the way we do alcohol and cigarettes.

What am I recommending? Here's the long answer:

Drop the "zero tolerance" rhetoric and policies and the illusory goal of a drug-free society. Accept that drug use is here to stay, and that we have no choice but to learn to live with drugs so they cause the least possible harm and the greatest possible benefit.

More specifically, I'm recommending:

* that responsible doctors be allowed and encouraged to prescribe whatever drugs work best, notwithstanding the feared and demonized status of some drugs in the eyes of the ignorant and the law;

* that people not be incarcerated for possessing small amounts of any drug for personal use. But also that people who put their fellow citizens at risk by driving while impaired be treated strictly and punished accordingly;

* that employers reject drug-testing programs that reveal little about whether people are impaired in the workplace but much about what they may have consumed over the weekend;

* that those who sell drugs to other adults not be treated by our criminal laws as the moral equivalents of violent and other predatory criminals;

* that marijuana be decriminalized, taxed and regulated, even as we step up our efforts to provide honest and effective drug education rather than feel-good programs like DARE;

* that top priority be given to public health policies proved to reduce the death, disease, crime and suffering associated with injection drug use and heroin addiction--in other words, expanded methadone maintenance treatment, heroin maintenance trials, ready access to sterile syringes and other harm-reduction policies that have proved effective abroad and that can work just as well here.

These beliefs, these statements of principles and objectives, represent a call for a fundamentally different drug policy. It's not legalization, but it's also not simply a matter of spending more on treatment and prevention and less on interdiction and enforcement.

Some call it "harm reduction"--an approach that aims to reduce the negative consequences of both drug use and drug prohibition, acknowledging that both will likely persist for the foreseeable future.

Most "drug legalizers" aren't really drug legalizers at all. A legalizer, as most Americans apparently understand the term, is someone who believes that heroin, cocaine and most or all other drugs should be available over the counter, like alcohol or cigarettes.

That's not what I'm fighting for, nor is it the ultimate aim of philanthropist and financier George Soros, who has played a leading role in funding drug policy reform efforts. Nor is it the aim of the great majority of people who devote their time, money and energies to ending the drug war.

This is not to say there is no such thing as a "legalizer." Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, and Thomas Szasz, the famed libertarian psychiatrist, have argued that total drug legalization is the only rational and ethical way to deal with drugs in our society. Most libertarians and many others agree with them. Szasz and others have even opposed the medical marijuana ballot initiatives, arguing that they retard the repeal of drug prohibition.

Friedman, Szasz and I agree on many points, among them that U.S. drug prohibition, like alcohol Prohibition decades ago, generates extraordinary harms. It, not drugs per se, is responsible for creating vast underground markets, criminalizing millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens, corrupting both governments and societies at large, empowering organized criminals, increasing predatory crime, spreading disease, curtailing personal freedom, disparaging science and honest inquiry and legitimizing public policies that are both extraordinary and insidious in their racially disproportionate consequences.

But I'm not ready to advocate for over-the-counter sale of heroin and cocaine, and not just because that's not a politically palatable argument in 1999. I'm not convinced that outright legalization is the optimal alternative.

The fact is, there is no drug legalization movement in America. What there is a nascent political and social movement for drug policy reform. It consists of the growing number of citizens who have been victimized, in one way or another, by the drug war, and who now believe that our current drug policies are doing more harm than good.

Most members of this "movement" barely perceive themselves as such, in part because their horizons only extend to one or two domains in which the harms of the drug war are readily apparent to them.

It might be the judge who is required by inflexible, mandatory minimum sentencing laws to send a drug addict, or small-time dealer, or dealer's girlfriend, or Third World drug courier, to prison for longer than many rapists and murderers serve. Or it might be the corrections officer who recalls the days when prisons housed "real" criminals, not the petty, nonviolent offenders who fill jails and prisons these days. Or the addict in recovery--employed, law-abiding, a worthy citizen in every respect—who must travel 50 or 100 miles each day to pick up her methadone, i.e., her medicine, because current laws do not allow methadone prescriptions to be filled at a local pharmacy.

Or the nurse in the oncology or AIDS unit obliged to look the other way while a patient wracked with pain or nausea smokes her forbidden medicine. Both know, from their own experience, that smoked marijuana works better than anything else for many sick people.

Or the teacher or counselor warned by school authorities not to speak so frankly about drug use with his students lest he violate federal regulations prohibiting anything other than "just say no" bromides.

Or the doctor who fears to prescribe medically appropriate doses of opiate analgesics to a patient in pain because any variations from the norm bring unfriendly scrutiny from government agents and state medical boards.

Or the employee with an outstanding record who fails a drug test on Monday morning because she shared a joint with her husband over the weekend—and is fired. Or the struggling farmer in North Dakota who wonders why farmers in Canada and dozens of other countries can plant hemp, but he cannot. Or the political conservative who abhors the extraordinary powers of police and prosecutors to seize private property from citizens who have not been convicted of violating any laws and who worries about the corruption inherent in letting law enforcement agencies keep what they seize.

Or the African American citizen repeatedly stopped by police for "driving while black" or even "walking while black," never mind "running while black."

Some are victims of the drug war, and some are drug policy reformers, but most of them don't know it yet. The ones who know they're drug policy reformers are the ones who connect the dots--the ones who see andunderstand the panoply of ways in which our prohibitionist policies are doing more harm than good.

We may not agree on which aspect of prohibition is most pernicious—the generation of crime, the corruption, the underground market, the spread of disease, the loss of freedom, the burgeoning prisons or the lies and hypocrisies, and we certainly don't agree on the optimal solutions, but we all regard our current policy of punitive drug prohibition as a fundamental evil both within our borders and beyond.

Most drug policy reformers I know don't want crack or methamphetamine sold in 7-Elevens--to quote one of the more pernicious accusations hurled by federal drug czar Barry McCaffrey. What we're talking about is a new approach grounded not in the fear, ignorance, prejudice and vested pecuniary and institutional interests that drive current policies, but rather one grounded in common sense, science, public health and human rights.

That's true drug policy reform.