Let’s Go With What Works

 In last week’s column we discussed why our policy of Drug Prohibition is not working and why it will never work. That probably was a discouraging column to read for many people. In fact, by discussing the matter in this way it might even appear to some people that we are simply “giving up.” But that is flat out not true. We still have the same goals, which are to reduce drug abuse and all of the crime and misery that accompanies it. Instead we are simply changing our approach to meet those goals. But today’s column will bring you hope, because now we will discuss drug programs that have been working well, both in this country and in other countries around the world.  

  The first thing to do when focusing upon programs that work is to start by making the same important distinctions that they make, such as the difference between drug crime on the one hand, and drug money crime on the other. Similarly we must make distinctions between someone’s use of drugs, as opposed to their misuse, abuse or addiction to drugs. And we must also focus upon the difference between the government attempting to hold adults accountable for their actions, as opposed to trying to hold them accountable for what they put into their bodies.  

 So what works? The first thing is full, honest and open education. You show me a problem area in our society, and I will show you how full, honest and open education is a material part of its resolution. The truth is that there actually are some benefits of using mind altering and sometimes addicting drugs, because if there were not, people obviously would not be using them. But there are just as obviously some sizeable risks, so we should focus honestly upon both the risks and the benefits of putting these various substances into our bodies. Education of this kind is working quite well today with regard to the biggest killer drug of all, which is tobacco, and it will work just as effectively with regard to other drugs as well.  

 Another program that works quite well for people who are addicted to injectable drugs is a Needle Exchange Program. What is that? This program allows a person to exchange a dirty hypodermic needle and syringe for a clean one at a designated location – no money changes hands, and no questions are asked. That’s it. All of the research studies show that programs of this kind do not increase drug usage, and they do not decrease it either. They are neutral in that regard. But they reduce the incidence of the HIV virus that leads to AIDS as well as Hepatitis C and other blood-born diseases by about 50 percent! Regardless of what one thinks about people who inject themselves with illicit drugs, they do not deserve to contract the AIDS virus. And if that humane reason is not enough, consider that it costs us taxpayers about $100,000 for each person in our country that gets AIDS.

 Much hope can also be gained from a Heroin Maintenance Program that has been in operation in Switzerland since the middle 1990s. This is a program run by licensed medical doctors that furnishes prescriptions of heroin to people who are addicted to it, and the prescriptions are filled at local pharmacies. To qualify for the program, people must be at least 18 years old, have been addicted to heroin for at least two years, present signs of poor health, had two or more failed attempts at conventional treatment, and must surrender their drivers’ licenses.  

 By the way, none of these presently illegal drugs are expensive to grow, manufacture or supply. Marijuana is not called a “weed” for nothing; it will grow anywhere. And the National Park Service was growing the opium poppy that is used to make heroin for years at Monticello until the DEA found out about it and ordered them removed. If the poppies will grow in Virginia, they will grow virtually anywhere. The only reason any of these drugs are expensive is because they are illegal. So the cost of the heroin in this program is no more than $10 per day for even the heaviest-using drug-addicted person.

 The results of the heroin-maintenance program show a 60 percent drop in felony crimes by the patients, and an 82 percent drop in patients selling heroin. No one has died from a heroin overdose, and new infections of AIDS and Hepatitis have been substantially reduced. In addition, heroin usage in the communities has also been materially reduced for several reasons. One reason is that most new users are introduced to heroin by members of their social groups, and 50 percent of the users sell heroin to support their own habits. But with so many users/sellers in the medical program, non-users have fewer opportunities to be exposed to heroin. In addition, this medicalization program has actually tarnished or de-glamorized the image of heroin and made it unattractive to young people. As a result of this success, Switzerland’s heroin maintenance program is being replicated in Germany, Holland, Belgium, England, Spain and Canada.

  Another program that works quite well is treatment. The RAND Corporation published the results of a study back in 1994 that said that taxpayers get fully seven times more value for their tax dollar with drug treatment than they do for incarceration, even for the heaviest-using drug-addicted person. This shows that it is much more effective to provide treatment for a non-violent drug-addicted person, which costs about $3,500 per year, than to incarcerate that same person at the cost to the taxpayers of about $25,000 per year.

 For those people who are in prison, drug treatment has also been shown to bring truly positive results. For example, in Donovan State Prison in Northern San Diego County, drug-addicted people who receive treatment as well as a program of aftercare support have a recidivism or re-offender rate of about 18 percent within the first year after being released from prison. But similar groups of drug-addicted people who do not receive the treatment program and an aftercare component have a recidivism rate of about 80 percent within the same period of time! So think of all of the crimes that are not committed; victims who are not victimized; police who do not have to investigate; and prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and juries who do not have to try criminal cases – as well as the prison space that is freed up – all as a result of the treatment program at Donovan.

 But treatment is not simply having people listen to lectures about health and the dangers of drug usage. It also involves anger management training, individualized and group counseling, education and job skills, and a focus upon the merits and benefits of personal responsibility. And the aftercare support groups also assist in procuring employment for the subject, as well as furnishing personal reinforcement and reminders of the benefits of staying off drugs.

  Holland has taken its own sophisticated approach that recognizes that even though these drugs can be dangerous and that their presence in their society will cause harm, no matter what the criminal justice system does, the drugs are still here to stay. This realization has led Holland to adopt a national program of “harm reduction.” This approach includes honest education, needle exchange programs and drug treatment on demand, but also includes the de-criminalization of drugs. This means that although it is still illegal in Holland to buy, use or possess these drugs, as long as people adhere to widely known general guidelines about quality, quantity and age restrictions, the police are instructed in writing to look the other way and leave them alone. Of course, if a person drives a motor vehicle under the influence of any of these drugs, etc., that person is prosecuted heavily.

  Is this program working? Well, the Minister of Health of Holland held a press conference a few years ago in which he said that marijuana usage in his country was only half of what it is per capita in the United States – both for adults and for teenagers! And then he went on to explain why, by saying that “We have succeeded in making pot boring.”  

 But what effect will these programs have upon our children? Well, as discussed in our last column, our policy of Drug Prohibition is actually putting our children in harm’s way. But let us take that a step further. I have never in all of my experience heard anyone say that being a heroin addict is a good thing, and I will bet that you have not either. So in my view, we should not hide things like needle exchange and heroin maintenance programs from our children. I say we should actually take them there! What do you think these drug-addicted people will tell our children? “Come and follow my lead and really mess up your life?” No, I think they will tell our young people the truth, such as “Look at me. Do you want to grow up to be like me?” “Do you know how I got started? I thought it was cool, or someone gave me a free sample of heroin and I thought I would just try it,” etc. That will be true, honest and a lasting education, and our children will benefit from being exposed to it.

 Finally, my suggested alternative in this and many other areas is to utilize the libertarian concept of Federalism. Our great country was founded upon this principle. That is to say that each state should be allowed to employ a policy and set of programs that it feels will best serve and protect its people. Obviously the federal government does not have all of the answers. Let each of our 50 “crucibles of democracy” grapple with and develop a policy that works best for its people, and then let us all observe the results.

 There is no legitimate reason why we cannot learn a lesson from programs that work, and put into effect similar programs in our communities. In the meantime, let us convince our city councils, mayors and chiefs of police to make the arrest and prosecution of non-violent offenders for the possession and use of drugs like marijuana their lowest priority.

Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)