Pubdate: Sun, 03 Apr 2016
Source: Richmond Times-Dispatch (VA)
Copyright: 2016 Media General Communications Holdings, LLC.
Author: A. Barton Hinkle


President Obama's recent speech on the opioid overdose epidemic 
offers a ray of hope that the country's approach to drugs might one 
day adopt what has been called the first rule of American business: 
When all else fails, try doing it right.

Noting with considerable understatement that "treatment is 
underfunded," the president proposed $ 1.1 billion for expanded 
opioid- addiction treatment. This is a good step in the right 
direction. But it is still $ 50 billion less than the U. S. will 
spend this year alone on its current, fatally flawed policy of the 
war on drugs, and only onethird of what the federal government 
allocates to lock up drug criminals - whose incarceration accounts 
for half of the entire Bureau of Prisons budget.

The president himself is to blame for continuing to wage that war. 
Despite his own youthful enjoyment of marijuana, and despite the 
spreading decriminalization of marijuana ( 27 states have legalized 
it for medical or recreational use or both), and despite a Gallup 
poll showing nearly three out of five Americans agree with such 
policies, the Obama administration has targeted pot more severely 
than the Bush administration did.

It also defends its ludicrous Schedule I classification, which is 
reserved for the "most dangerous" drugs. This might be the point at 
which to mention that while the CDC attributes more than 20,000 
deaths each year to alcohol, the number of deaths caused by cannabis 
is so low that, while probably not zero, it is apparently unmeasured.

Opioids, of course, have caused tens of thousands of deaths from 
overdose. The spike in opioid fatalities over the past few years is 
being blamed in part on doctors' purported over-prescription of 
painkillers. Patients can easily get hooked, and when they cannot get 
any more-or cannot get enough-from a physician, they turn to the black market.

This has become a middle-class epidemic, which has sensitized 
political leaders to the reality of addiction in ways the crack 
epidemic never did. As Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project puts it, 
when the drug users are "primarily people of color, then the response 
is to demonize and punish. When ( they are) white, then we search for 
answers." ( One exception: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has 
been calling the war on drugs a failure for years. His personal 
testimony about the death of a drug- addicted law-school friend drew 
widespread praise last fall.)

Unfortunately, as the Drug Policy Alliance points out, while the 
Obama administration has given lip service to addressing drug 
addiction as a medical issue, it continues to follow the 
law-enforcement model. The same holds true for most of the rest of 
the country. In 1980 America locked up about 50,000 people for 
drug-related violations. Now we lock up more than half a million, 
under the ignorant delusion that drug use is a character flaw 
correctable through the infliction of unpleasant consequences. Well.

The possibility of going to prison six months or a year from now does 
not weigh heavily on the mind-it does not even enter the mind-of an 
addict who is jonesing for a fix so badly she wants to rip off her 
own skin and so sick from withdrawal she can hardly stand up.

Try to threaten an addict who has emptied her life savings to feed 
her addiction. Who goes to work high even though she promised her 
boss, again, that it would never happen again. Whose own parents 
won't let her in the door at Thanksgiving - or any other time - 
because she keeps stealing things to hock for drug money. Who breaks 
down in tears when she begs her landlord not to evict her for 
nonpayment of rent. Who can't stop seeing the look in her children's 
eyes when three strangers hauled them away to the Social Services van 
idling at the curb.

Tell the addict who has been to rehab after rehab that her problem 
is, she doesn't really want to quit. Tell her she's a useless piece 
of human garbage who isn't fit to live. Tell her she ought to get her 
act together for once in her miserable life. She's heard it all 
before a thousand times, from the woman she sees in the mirror - the 
woman she has grown to hate and sometimes wants to kill. Every one of 
her waking moments is filled with shame and self-loathing so intense 
that nothing can relieve them except a needle in the arm or a bullet 
in the brain.

And you're going to make her get clean by threatening her with jail? Please.

Most drug addicts would love nothing more than to straighten 
themselves out. But simply ordering them to do so is about as 
effective as ordering a diabetic to produce more insulin. They can't 
- - or they would have long ago.

Drug courts can help. Because they involve substance- abuse 
counseling and other social services, they are expensive. But they 
have a good record: In Virginia, those who go through drug court have 
a recidivism rate of 14 percent, compared to 38 percent for similar 
offenders who go through regular courts.

Nationwide, three-fourths of drug-court graduates remain arrest- free 
for two or more years. The commonwealth has 37 drug courts now, up 
from zero a couple of decades ago.

In this regard Virginia and other states have begun to emulate 
Portugal, which decriminalized drug use ( but not distribution) in 
2001. Those cited for possession are sent to administrative, rather 
than criminal, courts. The dissuasion commissions, as they are 
called, encourage drug users to enter treatment programs by 
suspending fines if they do.

Drug use has not risen in Portugal; in fact, it has declined. So have 
drug-related deaths and HIV infection rates. And deaths from drug 
overdose rates? They're the second-lowest in Europe, behind 
Romania's. Portugal's rate of drug overdose deaths is 3 per 1 million 
citizens. That is the total for all drugs of any kind.

If the U. S. had an equivalent rate, the number of Americans who died 
from drugs in a given year would be 954- instead of 47,000, including 
10,000 for heroin alone.

In the war on drugs, maybe the time has come to try doing it right.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom