Pubdate: Fri, 18 Oct 2002
Source: Providence Phoenix (RI)
Copyright: 2002 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group
Author: Ian Donnis


The Action Speaks Lecture Series Probes The War On Drugs

Despite growing evidence that treatment is a less costly and more effective
response than locking up nonviolent drug offenders, American politicians
remain addicted to the war on drugs. Two-thirds of the $19.2 billion federal
anti-drug budget is spent on interdiction and law enforcement, which has
done nothing to reduce the availability of dope, and presidents ranging from
Bill Clinton to George W. Bush have proved unwilling to back a different
approach for fear of being seen as soft on crime.

Physician Leadership for National Drug Policy (PLNDP), which formed in 1997
and is based at Brown University's Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies,
offers a novel approach to trying to make some progress in the public
interest. By marshaling prominent leaders in public health policy, including
high-level officials from the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations,
PLNDP brings the rationality and prestige associated with physicians to the
debate on drug policy. As project director of PLNDP, Dr. David C. Lewis has
been a strong advocate for a smarter approach. In keeping with the theme of
"Security First" for 2002, the Action Speaks lecture series at AS220 (115
Empire Street, Providence), continues Tuesday, October 22, with a look at
the 1973 introduction of the Rockefeller Drug Laws in New York. These laws
foreshadowed the intensification of the drug war and the wholesale
incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders.

Action Speaks, which highlights under-appreciated days that changed America,
is a production of AS220 and the Rhode Island Committee for the Humanities.
Here's a rundown on subsequent weeks in this year's lineup: October 29,
"Reagan's Department of Education Publishes 'A Nation at Risk' (1983):
Massive Assault on Public Education Begins"; and November 5, "Sugar Hill
Gang Releases 'Rapper's Delight' (1979): First Commercial Rap Hit Breaks
Out: A 'Mad' New Culture Is Born." Each forum runs from 5:30 to 7 p.m., and
will be broadcast on WRNI (1290 AM), on the subsequent Sunday at 8 p.m.

Lewis spoke with the Phoenix from his office last week.

Q: Can you envision a time when our conduct of the so-called war on drugs
will move in a significantly different direction?

A: It's happening right now. Quite clearly, people talk a lot about
increasing treatment opportunities, taking a public health approach, and
they're not talking about legalization when they say that. They're mostly
talking about getting rid of the excessive incarceration and punishment that
typifies our prohibition against drugs. And we have evidence of that shift
in a lot of different ways. I think enthusiasm for drug courts, even though
there's some controversy about them, is one manifestation, the push of the
White House by two drug czars, [Barry] McCaffrey and [John] Walters, for

Most important is the evidence of public support of voters in several states
for treatment options in lieu of incarceration. Proposition 36 in California
is an example. There's one in Arizona. The public is essentially saying, we
think we've had enough of prison. The public is particular about what it
means. I think for nonviolent offenders, it means to decrease penalties
that, for repeat offenders, some times exceed those for rape and murder.
That's my evidence that things are changing. There's also an economic
reality about the comparisons of prison costs and inmates vs.
community-based treatment. There's quite a profound difference -- about
$8000 or $9000 [for sustained treatment] to $25,000 to $30,000 for a prison
inmate . . .

I think there's an astonishing relationship between incarceration and people
of color. In New York, it's very obvious. New York sends more
African-American and Latino men to prison each year than it graduates from
state colleges and universities. Despite the constancy of drug use across
all races and socioeconomic levels, some 94 percent of the incarcerated drug
offenders in New York are African-American and Latino. So we're talking
about an astonishing statistic.

I don't expect that [the drug war] will persevere for human reasons, for
common sense, and for justice and humanity. I think there are a lot of
conservative voices to improve the way we handle this problem, and many of
them speak out for greater public health and medical approaches.

Q: What would be most effective in overcoming political obstacles to bring
about a more treatment-based approach to drugs and addiction?

A: You have to have a change in the most vociferous grassroots
constituencies, because they have determined a lot about what happens in the
political arenas. The parents groups started off as a national evolution of
the concerns of parents about their children, but have become a major
political force for "Just say no" and for abstinence. Part of that is
healthy and part of that is excessive. The documentation, for instance, in
Michael Massing's book, The Fix, about how these groups primarily interested
in marijuana pushed out treatment options for hard drug use. The wish is
that you could prevent this, and we have the slogan in the Partnership for a
Drug-Free America. The reality is people take drugs and they get into
trouble, and we need to reach out and help them.

That dynamic, the priorities in that dynamic -- because of community
constituencies and people who deliver services -- has been going on for a
long time. It's partly played out in needle exchange and in medical
marijuana . . . I don't think they have to do with legalization, but that's
the claim -- that they produce the wrong message.

There has to be some better dialogue between scientists, social scientists,
parents groups, politicians, and health professionals and legal
professionals. Both groups, both political forces want the same things -
safe communities and safety for their kids, so the question is, how do you
get there? Do you get there by throwing people in prison and dealing with
their problems when they get out or using [their involvement with the
criminal justice system as an opportunity for tackling the problem]?

Q: What have been the most significant successes of Physician Leadership for
a National Drug Policy?

A: I think the main thrust of what we did was to push for treatment,
basically, as a viable alternative to incarceration and as an effective
anticrime measure, and the kind of language and backup evidence that we
presented in this presentation. How we presented it seems to have been
presented in public policy dialogue, in legislation, in political discussion
among candidates for federal office. It's gratifying to see how much
material, even an episode of The West Wing, seemed to come out of the
reports we presented, to make the point that we've gone too far for the
punishment side.

I think the pendulum is ready to swing, was about to swing, for economic,
for human reasons, and we provided the rational basis for people to discuss
this without totally getting caught up in irrational battles. It's not seen
as presenting an ideological point of view, but using experience in
treatment and addiction. [Our] new report on drug problems in youth was
released a week ago, and hundreds of requests have been coming in.

Q: What would you say to those who believe that incarceration-based policies
have significantly contributed to reductions in crime?

A: I notice that the criminologists argue about it. I'm not a criminologist.
I know the crime rates are very tied to economic circumstances. There are
obviously other factors. I don't think it's simple like that, and I know
that the criminologists debate that. I do know that even when you arrest a
dealer and put the dealer in jail, there's another dealer the next day, so
my intuition tells me it's much more complicated.

Q: How would you describe the legacy of the Rockefeller drug laws?

A: I think they're an embarrassment to the Rockefeller family. I notice that
some members [of the family] recently were complaining that that they
haven't been changed. I think the laws are racist. The campaign around their
repeal is clearly based in the Latino community in New York. I think it's
kind of a dirty little story that the more people know about it, the more
embarrassing it is. The only question is, who's going to step forward and
appear not soft on drugs?
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