Pubdate: Sun, 13 Dec 2009
Source: Hartford Courant (CT)
Copyright: 2009 The Hartford Courant
Author: Bob Painter
Note: Robert L. Painter, M. D., of Hartford is a researcher and 
policy analyst at the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy at 
Central Connecticut State University. He is a former member of the 
Hartford City Council.

Losing a Costly Battle


Taking the control of Hartford's $42 million drug market from 
criminals and placing it in the hands of citizens who will be 
responsible for regulating it seems a strikingly sensible strategy.

Unless we try a new approach that includes regulating and taxing the 
use of marijuana, and emphasizing harm reduction measures for problem 
drug users by getting them into treatment rather than jail, the trade 
in illegal drugs will continue to ravage our Capital. Although the 
serious crime rate is lower, homicides (directly related to the drug 
trade) are up. While large employers, cultural institutions and 
excellent restaurants attract many visitors to Hartford daily, 
hundreds more stay away for fear of violence.

New downtown housing has attracted many young professionals and empty 
nesters to the city. Many potential residents, however, stay away, 
inhibiting needed downtown retail development. The fear of crime, 
spawned mostly by the illegal drug market, is considered by experts 
to be the single greatest barrier to economic development in our cities.

In my research at Central Connecticut State University, I have 
attempted to quantify the cost of drug enforcement and to gather 
information concerning drug use from federal, state and city 
statistics. This kind of specific data about Hartford is not readily 
available and I was conservative in my calculations.

To determine how much money is exchanged to purchase drugs in 
Hartford, for example, I useddata from the Office of National Drug 
Control Policy, the U.S. Census Bureau and my academic research. The 
calculations show illegal drug purchases in Hartford total a 
startling $42 million annually. This would be a good gross income for 
a successful Walmart. Unlike Walmart, this is an untaxed criminal enterprise.

Although 88 percent of Connecticut's illegal drug overdoses occur in 
the suburbs, Hartford is the regional source for illegal drug 
purchases. It is notable that 39 percent of those arrested in 
Hartford for drug offenses are from outside the city, according to 
Hartford police arrest records for the six months from December 2008 
to June 2009.

We pay an extraordinary expense for drug-related law enforcement: the 
equivalent of $1,000 each year for man, woman and child in the 
country. Federal and state governments spend $50 billion each year 
trying to interrupt the flow of drugs into the U.S., and health care 
costs related to illegal drugs are $15.8 billion each year.

Critics say the War on Drugs is a losing one and suggest we consider 
alternative strategies. When we do, however, we step gingerly: 
approving of medical marijuana, equalizing penalties for crack and 
powder cocaine, reconsidering commercial hemp agriculture.

We need to be bolder. Addiction, although tragic, is not a crime. It 
is a medical, social and public health issue. A criminal conviction 
does not help problem drug users; ironically it may, however, provide 
access to treatment while incarcerated. In spite of the danger of 
illegal drugs, one can argue that absent direct harm to others, what 
we put into our bodies is a private matter. Only 2 percent of those 
who have smoked marijuana (estimated at 42 percent of the population 
over the age of 12) go on to hard drug use. Reported deaths from 
marijuana are so rare as to be statistically insignificant. Alcohol 
and tobacco -- legal drugs -- kill more than half a million people in 
the U.S. annually.

Here is a proposed alternative strategy:

1) Regulate and tax marijuana as we do alcohol and tobacco, setting a 
legal age minimum. Use the taxes for education, prevention and 
treatment of addiction and its underlying causes.

2) Make heroin and cocaine legally available to public health clinics 
for the treatment of addiction, where appropriate, alongside methadone.

3) Avoid prison for nonviolent drug offenses, opting for treatment 
and counseling.

4) Prosecute those who commit crimes to obtain drugs, who drive under 
the influence of drugs and who grow, distribute or sell drugs illegally.

In a number of countries, Switzerland and Holland for example, where 
the above measures have been used, there has been no appreciable 
increase (or even a decrease) in drug use. Crime has fallen 
dramatically. Experts say that most of the chaos associated with the 
illegal drug market is the result of prohibition rather from the 
drugs consumed. Just as we learned from alcohol prohibition, the 
prohibition itself spawns increased crime and violence.

Pursuing a failed strategy that has yielded tragically bad results 
makes no sense. It's time for a new approach.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake