Editorial: Backwards Again 6/4/04

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David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected], 6/4/04

David Borden
This week's Drug War Chronicle includes an interview with drug reform elder statesman Arnold Trebach, who among other things founded the Drug Policy Foundation, predecessor organization to today's Drug Policy Alliance and the group that more than any other served the goal of making opposition to the war on drugs respectable in US society. Back in the DPF days, the organization had a series of advertisements (and t-shirts, sorry, I don't think there are any left) sporting text about various drug war outrages, but spelled backwards. Then came the punch line in big print, spelled forwards: "Many of our drug policies are backwards."

One example of a backwards policy is Wisconsin's new "drugged driving" law, prompted by US drug czar John Walters' national campaign to get states to pass such laws. Under the Wisconsin law, any quantity of illegal drugs, no matter how minute, invokes a presumption under the law that the driver was impaired and shall be punished heavily. Attorneys in the state are preparing to challenge it, based on the reality that some of these drugs can remain in the system for periods of time extending long after the user is no longer under the influence.

District Attorney Phillip Koss of Walworth County inadvertently demonstrated how backwards the law is. Koss told the newspaper the Journal Sentinel, "We're taking the approach that these drivers should be placed at the high end of the sentencing range because we have no way of measuring impairment and because these drugs are illegal to begin with."

Well no, they do have ways of measuring impairment -- such as asking the driver to walk in a straight line, and there are other ways. They've just decided not to use them. And criminal justice is supposed to be about actual known guilt beyond a reasonable doubt -- a standard that in legal terms applies to the findings of a jury, but which is also a good guiding principle for how law ought to be written. If Koss and his subordinates don't know that a driver was impaired or had engaged in consumption that can reasonably be expected to place one at risk of being impaired, what is the basis in practical or ethical terms for prosecuting such a person with the goal of putting him or her behind bars?

This is not to say that laws criminalizing driving under the influence are bad in and of themselves. Everyone I know agrees that it is wrong to operate a motorized vehicle while impaired from any cause -- alcohol, illegal drugs, sleep deprivation, incompetence, whatever. One of the reasons the new Wisconsin drugged driving law is backwards, in fact, is that it consumes limited law enforcement resources that could otherwise be used to target actual impaired drivers or to enforce other laws protecting property or persons. Indeed, drug reformers often argue that public safety would be more effectively sought by criminalizing only the smaller number of people who drive dangerously because of substance use rather than the larger number who intoxicate themselves without driving.

Prohibition, then, is itself backwards -- it is wasteful and unjust to persecute all users of drugs because of the sins or failings of merely some users. The drug warriors are too far into this, however, to willingly forego their backwards logic in favor of enlightened, forward thinking policy reform. Perhaps they feel if they concede even one point, their house of cards will tumble and the rest of the drug war will unravel as well. If so, I think so too -- ordinary people want safe communities more than they want the drug war, and only need to be educated on the truth of what the drug war is doing to become our allies.

Speak up in your communities! You might not win the argument this week, this month or this year. But if you say sensible things out loud, and do so over and over, eventually your neighbors will listen, and ultimately you will win the argument -- because the other side has it backwards, and you have it right. Help the people learn to look forwards; sound the warning bells when so-called "leaders" try to push things in a backwards direction. The truth is on your side.

-- END --
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Issue #340, 6/4/04 Editorial: Backwards Again | Federal Court Slaps Down Congressional Effort to Censor Drug Reform Mass Transit Ads | Jail and Prison Population at an All-Time High -- Three Decades of Unbroken Increases | New York: Edging Closer to Rockefeller Drug Law Reform, Sort Of | DRCNet Interview: Arnold Trebach, Grand Old Man of American Drug Reform | Drug Reformers Remember Sam Dash | ALERT: Medical Marijuana Summer | Newsbrief: Wisconsin Defense Attorneys Challenge Drugged Driving Law | Newsbrief: Libertarian Party Chooses Dark Horse Badnarik for Presidential Nomination | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cops Story | Newsbrief: California Assembly Passes Bill to Let Some Drug Felons Receive Food Stamps | Newsbrief: Texas Medical Association, Canadian AIDS Society Give Nod to Medical Marijuana | This Week in History | The Reformer's Calendar
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