DRCNet Interview: Roger Goodman, Voluntary Committee of Lawyers 6/28/02

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One of the groups that emerged to play a key role in the eventual demise of Prohibition was the Voluntary Committee of Lawyers (VCL). Formed by nine prominent New York City attorneys in 1927, the original VCL supplied legal expertise to opponents of Prohibition and helped draft model legislation to replace it. With the passage of the 21st Amendment ending Prohibition in 1933, the VCL quietly disbanded, its work done.

Now, concerned attorneys have revived the VCL to take on the drug war and its attendant social ills. Coordinated most recently by Massachusetts attorneys Michael Cutler and Richard Evans, the VCL has now hired Washington state attorney and drug reformer Roger Goodman as its new executive director. DRCNet spoke with Goodman to see how the VCL is waging its share of the long march through the institutions of civil society and government in search of drug peace, not drug war.

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 issues.

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.

(Visit the VCL at http://www.vcl.org online.)

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Issue #243, 6/28/02 Editorial: The Specter of Coming Violence | DRCNet Interview: Roger Goodman, Voluntary Committee of Lawyers | DRCNet Book Review: Drug War Heresies | Supreme Court Allows Drug Testing All Students in Extracurriculars | Slim Supreme Court Majority Upholds But Also Criticizes Mandatory Minimum Sentencing | New York Rockefeller Law Reform Dies This Year as Pataki, Democrats Deadlock | Vermont Governor Quietly Signs Compromise Medical Marijuana Bill | Newsbrief: Unitarians Approve Anti-Drug War Platform | Newsbrief: Fatal Drug Overdoses on the Rise in Florida | Newsbrief: New York Pharmacies Fail to Distribute Sterile Syringes | Newsbrief: Arizona Supreme Court Rules Police Knock and Talk Violates Privacy Rights | Newsbrief: Kansas Sentencing Commission Wants to Focus on Prevention | Newsbrief: Illinois Juvenile Drug Courts Given a Green Light | Newsbrief: Medical Marijuana Distributor Angers Judge in California | Newsbrief: UN Reports Drug Use on the Rise Worldwide | Newsbrief: Scottish Police to Ignore Marijuana Use | Web Scan: Uniform Crime Report, World Prison Population List, Transnational Institute, Imani Woods, CDC, WorldNet Daily | The Reformer's Calendar
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