|Week Online: Your
organization is obviously inspired by the original Voluntary Committee
of Lawyers, which organized itself during Prohibition. Tell us what
role the VCL played in ending Prohibition?
Roger Goodman: The
charge of the original VCL was to preserve the spirit of the US constitution
by bringing about repeal of the Volstead Act and the 18th Amendment, or
Prohibition. The VCL worked state by state to establish the legal
infrastructure for the states to repeal the 18th Amendment and adopt the
21st Amendment through their constitutional conventions. They were
very successful in working with bar associations in key states to make
that happen, until two-thirds of the states voted for repeal. In
addition, in the context of the 1932 presidential elections, the VCL worked
with the Democratic Party to draft a platform statement on repeal of alcohol
prohibition. Part of that platform statement read as follows:
"Whereas the direct results
of attempted enforcement [of Prohibition] have been to imperil the liberties
of the people, to finance organized crime, to plunge politics into corruption,
to clog the courts of justice, to fill the prisons, and to subject important
communities to a rule of conduct of which they disapprove and strenuously
resist, so that large sections of the electorate have come to regard the
federal government as a hostile and alien power..."
The modern VCL takes this
statement from 1932 and holds it up to our current drug laws. We
see a frightening mirror image. We see the same adverse consequences
of a misguided policy 75 years later. But just as Prohibition crumbled
in the face of severe budget constraints during the Depression, we are
seeing those same economic pressures brought to bear on drug policy.
Drug prohibition is no longer affordable. The VCL wants to work in
a constructive way state by state to help balance budgets, bring a more
rational drug policy into being and enhance respect for the law.
WOL: When did the latest
incarnation of the Voluntary Committee emerge, and what prompted its resurgence?
Goodman: The reincarnated
VCL was started in 1997 after the New York City bar association published
its study, "A Wiser Course," about drug policy. An eminent group
of attorneys, including Elliot Richardson, Nicholas Katzenbach, Sam Dash,
Leon Higginbotham and George Bushnell saw that there could be a role for
a reconstituted VCL. They thought the time was right to begin a similar
movement across the country to generate interest in the bar for drug reform.
But they were a bit early, and the organization lay fallow for a couple
of years, but now the time is right. With the passage of the initiatives
and recent public opinion polls, we have seen a palpable change of opinion
among the public and among public officials. And with the success
of the effort to pass drug law sentencing reform in Washington state through
the state bar and the King County Bar Association, we demonstrated that
it could be done. The VCL got in touch with me because of our successful
efforts in Washington state (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/228.html#washingtonreform)
and requested that I become the executive director of the VCL. So
I've taken all the files and set up a West Coast office here in Seattle.
There is an East Coast office in New York City.
WOL: Does the Voluntary
Committee take a position on ending drug prohibition and replacing it with
a regulated market?
Goodman: We do not
take any specific position on what should replace our current drug policy.
Our mission is to create a safe space for discussion of the tragic failure
of the drug war. Up until now, there has been a visceral response
even to talking about it, and we want to get beyond that. What we're
doing is encouraging the legal community to explore all alternatives, including
treatment, decriminalization, freedom for physicians to prescribe for medical
reasons, expanding scientific research on illicit drugs, and improving
drug education so it is based on facts, not fear-mongering. VCL doesn't
have a hidden agenda, we just want to stimulate discussion among professionals
to provide credibility for the drug reform movement and, as important,
to provide cover for politicians who may be afraid to move forward on these
WOL: What is the membership
of the Voluntary Committee of Lawyers? Any prominent names?
Goodman: In addition
to the people mentioned earlier, drug reformers might recognize the name
of Eric Sterling, who is on our board of managers and executive committee.
The prominent defense attorney Charles Adler is president. But we
are just beginning to build our membership.
WOL: What programs
does the Voluntary Committee of Lawyers undertake?
Goodman: More than
anything, we are attempting to work through establishment organizations,
such as the bar associations, medical associations and other professional
associations. We start with the establishment organizations and move
outward, rather than banging on the door from the outside. That sort
of reform process tends to be more deliberate, maybe even too slow for
some, but it is perceived as a responsible reform effort, and I think it
is unstoppable. What we want to do is take the model from here in
Washington state and replicate it. In New Jersey, for instance, I'm
now working with attorneys and local and state bar associations to give
Gov. McGreevy some cover. He will address criminal justice expenditures
and budget problems. New Jersey is a perfect opportunity for drug
law reform -- it has the twin towers of astounding fiscal deficits and
harsh criminal justice penalties. The two are definitely linked.
There is a political risk
to standing for drug law reform, but what the VCL and professional associations
can do is provide cover by studying the issue and laying out the facts.
That is what we did in Washington state. An approach to public policy
based on facts, not fear, resonates with both the public and elected officials.
The modern VCL has three
tasks. First, we will encourage bar associations in various states
and localities to investigate drug policy, which is what we successfully
did here in Washington state. Here, local bar associations, sponsored
by the state bar, held lengthy forums and discussions about how to reform
our drug policy. We also brought in the state medical association
and the pharmacists. Now that we have passed progressive reform legislation
in Washington state, it is no longer radical to talk about the issue.
With the bar associations linking up with other professional organizations,
we've been able to make this a mainstream issue. The ultimate goal
is to find some key states where we can replicate this, maybe in New Jersey,
some Midwestern states, and even states in the South.
Second, we want to begin
drafting model drug reform statutes. Here in Washington, the King
County Bar Association has moved to that phase. We are beginning
a long deliberative process of devising an alternative model of drug control.
We don't have preconceived notions of what it will look like and we don't
know where it will take us. We'll look at the culture of drugs and
drug use in America, the history of narcotics control, both nationally
and internationally, we'll look at alternative models, then we'll bear
down and write something for Washington state that could be a model for
the other states. That presupposes, of course, that the federal government
will step back. The federal government needs to allow the states
to be laboratories for experiment and change to improve public policy.
Right now, the Controlled Substances Act preempts any serious experimentation
by the states. We'll ignore that as we draft our model statutes.
Again, there is a parallel with Prohibition. In that case, the federal
government didn't back off until the states showed they wanted change.
Perhaps this drug war will become too expensive even for the federal government.
$609 dollars every second, $52 million every day, that's a lot of money,
and the federal government has other wars to fight.
Third, we will organize grassroots
support among the bar. We have our open letter, and we're getting
federal and state judges and any attorney who shares the same passion to
sign on. I will address the National Lawyers Guild soon, and that
letter will be passed around then. Likewise, the VCL has a relationship
with the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys. And
the American Bar Association is considering a plenary session on drug law
reform at its midyear meeting here in Seattle. That would be a major
opening, an opportunity to speak to a national conference of state bar
presidents to tell them this issue is ripe for bar association action.
That is a low-risk strategy for a bar association. And it helps foster
better relationships with other professions, such as the medical profession.
Too often, the lawyers are suing the doctors, but this is an area where
both professions are coming to agreement.