Pubdate: Sun, 17 May 2015
Source: Richmond Times-Dispatch (VA)
Copyright: 2015 Media General Communications Holdings, LLC.

Solving Addiction


"We had a war on drugs," says Virginia Beach Police Chief James 
Cervera. "We've lost miserably. That's the best I can tell you."

Cervera is a member of a state task force set up by Gov. Terry 
McAuliffe to examine the problem of prescription drug and heroin 
abuse. His comments echo those of Rick Clark Jr., the police chief in 
Galax, who calls the drug war a "dismal failure. ... I don't think we 
can throw money at it. Obviously we have not arrested our way out of 
it." Like others on the panel, they contend society needs a new 
approach to the drug scourge.

No kidding.

This is not new information. In 2012, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie 
said the drug war "has been a failure." The year before that, the 
Global Commission on Drug Policy also said the war on drugs "has 
failed." And the year before that, U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske 
said it "has not been successful."

Two decades ago, National Review - the pre-eminent journal of popular 
conservative thought in America - said just the same: "The war on 
drugs has failed. It is diverting intelligent energy away from how to 
deal with the problem of addiction. ... It is wasting our resources, 
and ... it is encouraging civil, judicial and penal procedures 
associated with police states."

Since then the public has come around to the idea of permitting 
casual marijuana use, and several states now allow it. Domestic 
marijuana production already has hurt drug lord finances south of the 
border, just as the repeal of Prohibition cut the legs out from under 
the bootleggers of an earlier era. Yet regarding harder drugs, 
federal, state and local governments continue to pursue a failed 
get-tough policy that has helped fill the prisons but has not reduced use.

The United States has spent at least $100 billion on such an 
approach. In the process it has turned local police departments into 
paramilitary units equipped with armored personnel carriers, machine 
guns and grenade launchers, in the name of keeping up with heavily 
armed drug gangs - gangs that are, ironically, a product of the very 
prohibitionary policies the government has imposed.

By some estimates, more than three-fourths of prison inmates are 
behind bars because of drugs - either directly as a result of dealing 
or using them, or indirectly as a result of committing crimes to feed 
an addiction. (Racial minorities suffer disproportionately: Although 
African-Americans use drugs at roughly the same rates as whites do, 
they are far more likely to get arrested for it.)

This constitutes a monumental waste of both money and human capital. 
Given proper treatment, many of the incarcerated could return to 
lives as responsible and productive members of the community.

Drug courts, such as those used in Virginia, can help some addicts 
recover from their addiction and stay out of trouble. They are 
expensive, but not as expensive as imprisonment. And, unlike 
imprisonment, they actually seem to work.

The U.S. certainly will not embrace full-blown legalization of all 
controlled substances, nor should it. But other approaches offer 
better prospects than total prohibition. Portugal, for instance, 
treats drug possession - any drug possession - as an administrative 
rather than a criminal offense. Those who are cited are sent before a 
Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction. Serious addicts are 
sent to treatment. Casual users are fined or let go without sanction.

Although drug use briefly spiked after Portugal adopted such a 
policy, it then declined and has continued to do so. Drug use is now 
lower than it was before the policy shift, and so are drug-related 
deaths. There has been no plague of "drug tourism," as skeptics once warned.

Treating drug use as a public-health problem rather than a moral 
failing and a criminal act has not eliminated drug use in Portugal, 
but it seems to work better than forcing imprisoned addicts to 
interrupt their drug use during the occasional prison stretch. It's 
time the U.S. tried a similar approach.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom