Editorial: The Next Wave of the Drug Debate 3/23/01

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David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected]

An interesting week: Mexico's President comes out for legalization -- if enacted globally, at least.

The Congress cracks down on the drug ecstasy, harder than they do against heroin or cocaine -- ignoring all scientific and medical testimony, as well as the fact that ecstasy's fatal victims each can be counted on a person's fingers.

Australian and Puerto Rican leaders face criticism for their zero tolerance of, or zero interest in, differing viewpoints.

ABC Nightline shows more interest in discussing a range of viewpoints, and airs several days of drug war coverage inspired by the movie Traffic.

Here in Washington, a week of forums seemed to mirror the increasing global debate about drug policy. A Freedom Forum program at the Newseum discusses drug policy and the media. A panel marks the Pew Trust poll of public attitudes about the drug war -- most Americans understand it's not working, but seem to want more of it. The New Republic magazine's discussion series brings together experts representing different degrees and types of drug policy reform.

The New Republic forum may have pointed toward the next wave of the drug debate. If Americans realize the drug war is a failure, as the Pew Poll showed, sooner or later they'll let go of it. Participants in the New Republic forum, on the other hand, were already in favor of changing drug policy and moving it away from the incarceration approach dominant in today's drug war. That discussion instead focused on where do we ultimately go with drug policy, after the drug war?

Representing the drug court movement and forced treatment in lieu of lengthy incarceration were Judge Jeffrey Tauber and a representative of Phoenix House named James Woods. Against forced treatment in principle was Kevin Zeese of Common Sense for Drug Policy; largely against it in practice, except when substance abuse has played a role in real crimes committed against people, was Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA).

Tauber believes that people with drug problems won't seek treatment on their own, for the most part, and that they need to be threatened -- not with mandatory minimum sentences, but with a day or a few days in jail -- in order to get them to face their drug problems.

I submitted a question, which didn't make the moderator's final cut, hoping to ask Tauber how it can be, if people don't seek treatment on their own, that the nation's treatment programs can be filled to overflowing, with waiting lists? If people don't voluntarily seek treatment, one would expect for treatment programs to have empty slots they desperately wished to fill. Tauber's claim just didn't make sense in light of that stark reality. Maybe I'll have another opportunity to pose this to him.

The appropriateness of coercion into drug treatment also needs to be questioned. If treatment in lieu of incarceration is the only option the people or the politicians will accept today, I believe that is preferable to the status quo in which half a million nonviolent drug offenders languish in the nation's prisons and jails without hope -- at least so long as it does not lead to large numbers of people being swept into the system who would not be otherwise, or to harsher penalties for those who refuse or fail the treatment.

Yet even then, how tragic it is, as Zeese pointed out, that in the world's wealthiest society, the answer to drug and mental health issues is criminalization. Coerced treatment is not an acceptable end goal, only a temporary compromise to help open the doors of our prisons and let our fellow human beings walk free now if they choose that option.

Suppose a drug court judge became stranded on an island with only one other person, and discovered that his new neighbor had a drug habit, perhaps even an addiction? Suppose the judge's new neighbor, as a result of his drug habit, was less productive in doing his part to survive and improve their condition, but otherwise left him alone, didn't steal his food, etc. Our judge friend could reasonably say his life was affected by his neighbor's drug use; it would probably be better for him, for both of them, were he to stop.

But have his rights been violated? Would he consider it appropriate or ethical to forcibly restrain his neighbor, or threaten his neighbor, in order to intervene in his drug situation? I suspect and hope that the answer might be no, so long as his neighbor on the island leaves him alone, he must do the same, advise at best but under no circumstances lock him in a cage, tie him down or anything else of the sort. Doing so would ultimately be counterproductive and damage their ability to live together. Why, then, does such coercion become ethical when it is carried out by the modern superstate?

Such questions may be the next wave of the drug war debate. Reformers should work to get people out of prison now, but stand firm on the ultimate goal of ending prohibition outright.

-- END --
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Issue #178, 3/23/01 Mexico's President Fox Talks Legalization, Becomes Second Western Hemisphere Head of State to Break With Drug War Consensus | Sentencing Commission Sets Harsh New Ecstasy Penalties, Panel Ignores Scientific, Medical Testimony, Heeds Only Drug Warriors | Supreme Court Bars Drug-Testing of Expectant Mothers in South Carolina Case | See No Evil: New Jersey State Officials Sat on Racial Profiling Data for Years, Testimony at Hearings Contradicts Earlier Accounts, Points Finger at Verniero | New Mexico Post Mortem: Modest Reforms Enacted as Legislative Session Closes, Major Components of Johnson Package Await Another Time | DRCNet Interview: Dave Miller, Legislative Liaison for New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson | Puerto Rico Update: Drug Czar Office Created, Collazo Bows Out, McCaffrey Signs on as Advisor | Australian Prime Ministers Ousts Reformers from Drug Panel, Shows "Zero Tolerance" for Contrary Opinions | Alert: Drop the Rock (New York State) | The Reformer's Calendar | Errata: Switzerland | Editorial: The Next Wave of the Drug Debate
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