War on drugs under fire

August 14, 2003


This is not your father's drug war.

Call it drug policy reform or call it the war on the war on drugs, opposition to America's 30-year drug war is gaining ground among some seemingly unlikely quarters: lawyers, doctors and police.

And King County and Washington State may be leading the way to what some hope will be a radical rethinking of the nation's multibillion effort to lock up its drug users and sellers.

On board are the King County and Washington State bar associations, the King County Medical Society, the League of Women Voters, the Washington State Medical Association, Washington State Pharmacy Association and the Washington State Psychological Association.

AP Graphic
"There's no coalition like this in the country. There's no concerted deliberate effort like this in the country. It really is an establishment effort to provide a fact-based basis for reform." said Roger Goodman, who works full-time as a drug policy reformer at the King County Bar Association.

Goodman coordinates the efforts of 12 working groups -- about 500 people -- that have been studying everything from insurance coverage for drug treatment to the much more radical question of whether the state could restrict advertising and promotion of drugs if they were legalized.

Goodman thinks that future generations will look back on the war on drugs and compare it to other unfortunate historical episodes.

"We used to burn witches. Women couldn't vote until 1920, blacks couldn't drink at the same water fountain. Our grandchildren will say, wow, you used to lock people up for doing that?" Goodman said.

Both proponents and opponents of the war on drugs rely heavily on statistics -- sometimes to the same ones -- to make their cases

One day last week in Seattle, a group of senior citizens gathered in a steamy room in the city's Central Area to listen to a presentation by Jack Cole.

The gathering was a committee meeting of the Seattle League of Women voters and Cole is executive director of the group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition or LEAP, composed of current and former police, Drug Enforcement Administration officers, judges and the like dedicated to spreading the word that the war on drugs is a failure.

Using statistics and anecdotes from the field, Cole said the war on drugs initially gave police agencies the imperative to go out and find drug dealers and users to justify the money the federal government was supplying for the war. He said that like alcohol prohibition in the 1930's, the criminalization of drugs gave rise to violent gangs to supply them because the profits were so enormous.

"They're weeds. They have zero value until you make them illegal," Cole said.

Resource Links
King County Bar Association Drug Policy Project

Law Enforcement Against Prohibition

Northwest High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas

And in the intervening years, Cole said, citing a DEA chart, the cost of heroin has gone down and the potency has gone up.

"Everything else in the world goes up. This is dropping," he said.

There were nods all around during and after Cole's presentation, even after presenting his most radical idea, that drugs should be not only legalized, but regulated and given away free.

That's because Cole was preaching to the choir.

"It makes all kinds of sense to legalize it," said Peg Williams, 83, a League of Women Voters officer who said she was old enough to see what alcohol prohibition did in the U.S. when drinking didn't stop, but instead went underground.

Cole and Goodman make a similar point about the irony of calling marijuana and heroin "controlled substances." In fact, they say, it's easier for children to get marijuana or even more serious drugs than it is for them to buy cigarettes and alcohol, which are legal.

Not part of the choir is David Rodriguez, director of the federal government's Northwest High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas office in Seattle.

Where Cole blames the criminalization of drugs for causing crime, Rodriguez points to the "correlation between drug use and crime."

"Seventy percent of the people arrested in Seattle have used drugs," he said. Rodriguez questions how critics can say the drug war is not being successful. He said the number of drug users in the U.S. is falling, from 23 million in the 70s and 80s, to 17 million now.

And legalization, he said, would be a disaster, causing an increase in emergency room visits which would generally outweigh and savings in prison costs. Plus, he said, without the threat of punishment, "You're giving (drug users) no reason to change their behavior."

But voices like Rodriguez' are being drowned out lately. In King County, the idea that jailing drug users can solve the problem of drug use is already being chipped away at. Last year, King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng signed on to sentencing reforms that give judges more discretion in sentencing drug offenders, in particular, finding ways to keep them out of jail and get them into treatment.

As a result, about $9 million that otherwise would have been spent on incarcerating users will be spent on treatment, according to Goodman.

That treatment is bound to be effective, according to Don Sloma, executive director of the State Board of Health. In fact, that's Sloma's central frustration with the way that addicts are treated, or not treated. Instead, he said, they are blamed.

"There was a time 150 years ago when we thought that tuberculosis was a moral failing," Sloma said. But addiction, just like tuberculosis, is a disease, he said, a disease for which effective treatment is known, just not available to the people who need it.

But no one - not Goodman, not Cole, not Peg Williams - thinks radical change will come anytime soon. What they all seem to think, however, is that the country, Washington State and perhaps King County specifically, may be ready to talk about whether the war on drugs has been a success or failure and then what to do about it. Eventually, say some, that leads to a discussion of legalization.

What it comes down to, said Goodman, is a simple question: "Should we leave the drug business in the hands of violent gangs, or should the government take control of it?"


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