U.S. Representative Tom Campbell (R-CA), the Republican frontrunner in the U.S. Senate race in California, made headlines this week when he told reporters from the Contra Costa Times that state and local governments should be allowed to set up programs to distribute drugs to addicts. "Why not take those people who are already addicted and give them the drug to which they are addicted at a government distribution center?" Campbell asked.
The story received top billing in the local papers, but Campbell's campaign spokesman, Suhail Khan, said the idea was not a new one for the Congressman. "Representative Campbell has been looking at what's happened in Europe for the past couple of years," Khan told The Week Online. "He feels like it's time to take a new look at drug policy at home, and that some of those programs could be tried here."
Campbell sees promise in programs like the Swiss heroin prescription experiment, which provided more than 1,000 long-term heroin addicts with inexpensive, pharmaceutical grade heroin in a clinical setting along with counseling and other services over a three year period. Studies of that program indicated significant decreases in crime, disease, homelessness and unemployment among participants.
Khan said Campbell thinks the results could be as successful here. "Drug treatment should be a priority," he said. "But for a small population who can't stop, drug maintenance may be a better option. It would reduce the spread of diseases like AIDS, as well as health problems associated with tainted street drugs. And it would reduce crime, because addicts wouldn't have to steal to get their drugs."
Just as importantly, Khan said, the distribution of drugs to addicts would disrupt the supply side of the black market, putting an end to violent turf battles. And lest anyone think Campbell is soft on crime, Khan added, he has been known to say he favors the death penalty for people who sell drugs to children.
Just a few years ago, any U.S. politician who dared to question the status quo on drug policy was risking political suicide, but Khan said he thinks the climate is beginning to change. "My gut reaction from the responses we've been getting from people and from recent press coverage on this is very positive," he said. "The bottom line, we're hearing, is that people know we need a change. They know 'just say no' isn't working."
And what has been the response within the Republican Party? "Mixed," Khan said. "There are some that have a more traditional conservative approach, but others are more willing to take a look. The recent needle exchange vote in Congress was the first vote we've seen in this regard, where more Republicans came down on the side of needle exchange."
Khan said he does not expect drug reform to be a major focus of Campbell's Senate campaign. "It won't be a particular focus, but overall, this is something that's important to him," he said. Campbell has cosponsored medical marijuana and civil forfeiture reform bills in Congress, and has been a staunch supporter of needle exchange.
Campbell faces his Republican rivals in a primary in March and, if he is nominated, will go up against incumbent Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein in November, 2000.
The Lindesmith Center provides a collection of scholarly and popular articles about drug maintenance online at http://www.lindesmith.org/library/focal11.html.
Rep. Campbell's Senate campaign web site provides extensive information about the Congressman's views on a variety of topics, and includes a "Town Hall" forum for constituents to e-mail him with questions and comments. Visit the Campbell campaign online at http://www.campbell.org.