Pubdate: Thu, 19 Nov 2015
Source: Alaska Dispatch News (AK)
Copyright: 2015 Alaska Dispatch Publishing
Note: Anchorage Daily News until July '14
Author: Mike Dingman
Note: Mike Dingman is a fifth-generation Alaskan born and raised in 
Anchorage. He is a former UAA student body president and has worked, 
studied and volunteered in Alaska politics since the late '90s.


In a commentary printed Nov. 11, I wrote about the broken structure 
our addicts face when they enter the criminal justice system. But the 
question still remained, "How do we fix it?"

While the United States is still warehousing drug addicts in prisons 
and watching them come in and out of what has become known as the 
"revolving door," many countries are starting to look to 
decriminalization to solve this problem.

Related: Heroin story underscores need for Alaska to treat addicts, 
not imprison them Mat-Su grapples with lack of detox options as 
heroin use rises

It's hard to argue with the accomplishments in Portugal after that 
country legalized all drugs 14 years ago and began using a harm 
reduction strategy to treat public health risks associated with drug 
addiction. According to the Washington Post, "Among Portuguese 
adults, there are three drug overdose deaths for every 1,000,000 
citizens. Comparable numbers in other countries range from 10.2 per 
million in the Netherlands to 44.6 per million in the U.K., all the 
way up to 126.8 per million in Estonia. The E.U. average is 17.3 per million."

The website "Mic" clarifies Portugal's decriminalization policy. "If 
someone is found in the possession of less than a 10-day supply of 
anything from marijuana to heroin, he or she is sent to a 
three-person Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction, 
typically made up of a lawyer, a doctor and a social worker. The 
commission recommends treatment or a minor fine; otherwise, the 
person is sent off without any penalty. A vast majority of the time, 
there is no penalty."

Decriminalization works.

A number of other countries, primarily in Europe, are also turning to 
decriminalization to help curb their drug problem, following the lead 
of Portugal and the Netherlands, both of which have proven track 
records of lowering drug use, crime rates, HIV rates and overdose 
deaths over more than a decade.

However, it is unrealistic to think that the concept of 
decriminalization could be sold to the populace of the United States 
- -- and it is far more realistic to start a slower, more progressive 
march on a local level.

In Anchorage we have an "Anchorage Felony Drug Court." According to 
the Alaska Court System website, a defense attorney can refer a 
defendant to the drug court; the prosecuting attorney could, in turn 
add the drug court option as a sentencing alternative.

The website says that the defendant would then observe two drug court 
sessions, complete a substance abuse assessment to determine 
eligibility (the defendant must score appropriately for intensive 
outpatient treatment), then the defendant and the court would enter 
into a drug court agreement. The defendant would plead guilty and 
start the program.

On its face it's a very good idea. The defendant starts a 12-18 month 
program that includes intensive outpatient treatment, regular 
appearances in front of the drug court judge, regular drug and 
alcohol testing, and a work or school hours requirement.

However, it's just not enough.

The website warns many times that the program is "not automatic" in 
bold letters, and it points out that slots in the program are limited.

That shouldn't be the case.

A program very much like this one should be the norm. Completion of a 
new drug court program that results in no felony conviction does not 
bar former felons or past drug offenders from re-entry into the 
program -- because very few people beat addiction on the first try.

The goal I advocate is to create a treatment environment rather than 
a criminal environment without taking steps toward more formal 
decriminalization. A program like this, however, will need a strong 
commitment to treatment. Nonprofits will have to take ownership of 
this program and more low-cost and free treatment options will need 
to be made available to accommodate the influx of new patients.

There will also need to be enhanced aftercare for those men and women 
who work their way back into society from inpatient treatment and for 
those in outpatient treatment who might not have had a job or housing 
and need help with that. That task will be far easier without 
felonies on their records.

By keeping these folks in society and either keeping them productive 
or making them productive as they enter treatment, money will be 
saved by not incarcerating people for drug possession crimes, fewer 
addicts will commit property crimes to pay for their drug habit and 
law enforcement will be less strained with fewer drug-related calls.

There is no perfect solution -- but what we are doing now doesn't 
work. Some people will still fall through the cracks, refuse to go to 
treatment and end up in prison. However, if we can help even a small 
percentage of addicts and grow that percentage over time -- this plan 
will pay for itself exponentially over time, not only saving dollars 
but also lives.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom