Pubdate: Wed, 14 Mar 2007
Source: Rutland Herald (VT)
Copyright: 2007 Rutland Herald
Author: Robert L. Sand
Note: Robert L. Sand is Windsor County state's attorney.
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)
Bookmark: (Drug Courts)
Bookmark: (Harm Reduction)
Bookmark: (Treatment)


My recent commentary calling for "Peace talks in the war on drugs" 
has prompted Vermonters to ask what a new drug policy might look 
like. Although many focus on decriminalization or legalization of 
drugs, these poorly defined terms tend to polarize the debate. 
Instead, let's try to find common ground by focusing on 
transformation -- transforming our current approach to drugs away 
from excessive punishment, absolute prohibition, and professed 
morality and toward an approach that emphasizes harm reduction.

A government's response to a drug should not create more harm than 
use of the drug itself. Under a harm-reduction model, each substance 
would be evaluated separately to determine the harm of its use and 
the harm created by our approach to its use. We would then devise a 
response tailored to the particular drug. For some drugs, we might 
find any and all use creates such personal harm that the drug must 
remain prohibited and an enforcement and punitive response 
maintained. Methamphetamines might fall into this category.

For other drugs, however, we might find that the black market and 
related crime and violence that result from complete prohibition 
create more public harm than the use of the drug itself. For these 
drugs, we might adopt a non-criminal justice approach, focusing on 
education, prevention, and treatment to minimize harm. Marijuana 
falls into this category. If we are committed to public health and 
safety, we cannot perpetuate a system that exacerbates rather than 
reduces harm.

Recently, the mayor of Barre simultaneously called for the death 
penalty for dealers of hard drugs and for the legalization of 
marijuana. Although advocating an extreme position, the mayor 
deserves credit for highlighting the need for a particularized 
response to individual drugs. Without a focused assessment of the 
harm created by each drug and by our response to that drug, we will 
fail to make significant headway in reducing drug use and drug-related crime.

It is important to re-emphasize that discussing a transformed drug 
policy should not be construed as an invitation to break the law. We 
can have a thoughtful debate about the future while continuing to 
abide by existing restrictions. Violation of any laws, including our 
current drug laws, is not acceptable.

Transforming drug policy to emphasize harm reduction requires us to 
change our thinking and approach in the following ways:

1) We must accept the fact that humans have always and will always 
use intoxicants and therefore reducing the harm of use is of 
paramount importance, even as we aspire to eliminate use.

2) We must increase funding for treatment, education, public health 
and prevention programs -- treatment and education change behaviors 
far more effectively than punishment.

3) We must reduce the stigma of addiction and lessen the punitive 
consequences for users, assuming their conduct did not harm others 
(addiction can never be a justification or excuse for harming another 
person). A lessening of criminal justice sanctions with a focus on 
treatment and recovery is part of the drug court model used in a few 
of the criminal courts in Vermont.

4) We must allow our medical and substance abuse providers to use a 
broad array of treatment options. Nicotine is used to treat tobacco 
addiction. Several countries, including our neighbor, Canada, have 
found similar success prescribing pharmaceutical-grade heroin to 
acute addicts to stabilize them, better address their addiction, and 
transition them off of the drug.

5) We must redirect law enforcement efforts toward the most harmful 
and violent behaviors and away from those that do not overtly 
endanger others. Over the last three years, criminal charges 
involving marijuana were the second or third most commonly filed 
criminal cases in Vermont. We cannot afford to maintain this type of 
criminal justice emphasis.

How do we move forward? How do we transform a highly punitive model 
into one that focuses on harm reduction? Here are three immediate 
steps our governor and Legislature could take:

1) Provide support and funding for drug courts throughout the state 
to work more effectively with users who come into the criminal justice system.

2) Call on our congressional delegation to amend the Federal 
Controlled Substances Act to allow states greater latitude in 
designing their own drug policies.

3) Create a gubernatorial or legislative bipartisan task force to 
look at what works and does not work in current drug policy and to 
make recommendations for changes in approach.

Even if our current approach was working well (a claim no one is 
making), it is economically unsustainable. Let's acknowledge that 
reality and start planning now for the future. These three important 
steps would begin transforming drug policy in a positive new 
direction focusing on harm reduction. It is time to move forward on 
drug policy reform.

Robert L. Sand is Windsor County state's attorney.
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman