HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html End The War On Drugs
Pubdate: Sun, 08 Nov 2020
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2020 The New York Times Company
Author: Nicholas Kristof


One of America's greatest mistakes over the last century was the war
on drugs, so it's thrilling to see voters in red and blue states alike
moving to unwind it.

The most important step is coming in Oregon, where voters easily
passed a referendum that will decriminalize possession of even hard
drugs like cocaine and heroin, while helping users get treatment for
addiction. The idea is to address drug use as a public health crisis
more than as a criminal justice issue.

In Arizona, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota, voters
decisively passed measures liberalizing marijuana laws. Marijuana will
now be legal for medical use in about 35 states and for recreational
use in 15 states.

But not all the country is onboard. In Alabama, a disabled military
veteran named Lee Carroll Brooker, about 80 years old, is serving a
life sentence without the possibility of parole because he was caught
in 2011 growing marijuana plants for personal medical use.

Because he had been convicted of previous felonies (robberies
committed 20 years earlier), the mandatory sentence was life without
the possibility of parole. So for marijuana possession, which is legal
in much of the country, Brooker is slated to die in prison.

President Richard Nixon began the war on drugs almost half a century
ago, after legitimate worries about the rise of addiction, especially
among Vietnam veterans. Yet many years later a top aide, John
Ehrlichman, explained (with some exaggeration) the policy's roots:
"The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had
two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people. You understand what
I'm saying? We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against
the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies
with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both
heavily, we could disrupt those communities."

One result of the war on drugs is that today there are as many
Americans with arrest records as with college degrees. Yet we still
lost the war. Addiction has soared in the United States, and more
Americans die from overdoses each year than died in the Vietnam,
Afghan and Iraq wars combined. A baby is born dependent on drugs every
15 minutes.

Drugs are also an example of a practical issue that this divided
country may still progress on even if there is gridlock in Washington.
Left and right both recognize the need for new thinking on the topic,
and one of the best drug programs I've seen is in a red state: It's
the "Women in Recovery" initiative that helps women in Tulsa, Okla.,
overcome addictions, get jobs and become great moms.

Yet here's one thing I worry about: As we celebrate these ballot
efforts, there's a risk that we downplay the threat drugs pose. As
I've written, a quarter of the kids on my old school bus in Oregon are
dead from drugs, alcohol or suicide - "deaths of despair" - so I
strongly believe that decriminalizing drugs should not lead to any
relaxation about their dangers.

Under the new Oregon measure, manufacturing or selling drugs will
still be crimes, but possession of small amounts of heroin, cocaine or
methamphetamine would be equivalent to a traffic ticket. The aim is to
steer people into treatment so that they can get help with their addictions.

That focus on treatment, which Oregon will fund with marijuana taxes,
is critical. Seattle has in effect decriminalized possession of hard
drugs, by exercising prosecutorial discretion, but it never adequately
funded social services for people wrestling with substance abuse. That
has led to a backlash among voters irritated by open drug use.

"We did miss the boat here in Washington State when we licensed
cannabis," Dan Satterberg, the prosecutor in King County, which
includes Seattle, told me. "We should have dedicated much more of the
tax revenue to building a better public health response to our
behavioral health crisis. The states that are just getting into the
pot business should learn from our mistake."

The new Oregon law is modeled after one in Portugal, which pioneered
decriminalization and has emphasized treatment of those with
addictions. As a result, Portugal now has, along with Greece, one of
the lowest drug fatality rates in Western Europe. I visited Portugal a
few years ago to report on its drug situation, and I found that while
no narcotics policy works as well as we might hope, Portugal's
succeeds much better than others.

I hope other states will also experiment with addressing addiction
through public health measures. A useful next step would be to provide
safe injection sites, thus saving lives of many people who now die
from overdoses.

"Criminalization of drugs in the United States has failed by every
metric," notes Alex Kral, an epidemiologist with the nonprofit RTI
International. "Oregon's new policy offers us a much needed
opportunity to evaluate alternatives to criminalization of drugs."

That's a rare point that liberals and conservatives seem able to agree
on, and it offers hope for ending America's longest war.
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