One of the slogans floating around during DRCNet's early days was a clever rearrangement of a popular phrase used in law enforcement situations or at least in enforcement-oriented media: "Ignorance is no excuse for the law." The drug war, and prohibition itself, are sustained by ignorance; getting accurate information out, which the Internet makes more feasible (DRCNet's original claim to fame), will bring the drug war to an end, or so we hope.
I wish I could say that Virginia District Court Judge Henry Vanover took such ignorance to a new low when he sentenced Kimberly Bucklin, a 29-year old recovering addict, to three years in prison for using prescription methadone to fight her addiction. Judge Vanover -- ignorantly -- had ordered her to limit the duration of her methadone treatment to only six months. That didn't work -- of course, that's not the way methadone treatment is supposed to work -- and Bucklin's doctor had advised her not to stop the treatment.
Unfortunately, it's not a new low, only a continued low. Though numerous judges around the country and the Office of National Drug Control Policy vaunt drug courts as the approach for the future, Judge Vanover's approach to Kimberly Bucklin's case illustrates one of the fundamental problems with them. Whether this was technically a "drug court" in name it's the same idea. Judges are not trained in medicine, yet many second guess the doctors and drug treatment professionals who are. That methadone is largely not recognized by drug courts -- Bucklin was lucky to be allowed to use it for even six months -- is a testament to the profound incompetence of the judiciary in the area of drug addiction. Methadone is just not controversial from the medical and scientific standpoint; in fact it's one of the few issues on which I agree with the current and previous drug czars. Yet as the local prosecutor told the Roanoke Times, it is common in that area for judges to forbid probationers from attending methadone clinics.
Perhaps this is an area in which simply providing accurate information to the judges around the country making these decisions will solve the problem. I doubt it will be so simple -- total abstinence is an ideology, and ideology is designed to resist logic and reason. Obviously it must be attempted, and leading lights in addiction treatment, such as Bob Newman of New York's Beth Israel Medical Center, went to Virginia to testify before Judge Vanover to try and change his mind. Some would say we should assume Judge Vanover is a reasonable man and that he deserves the benefit of the doubt that he was merely misinformed.
I agree with the approach, but I only partially agree with the sentiment. I don't think Judge Vanover deserves to be considered reasonable, having been arrogant enough to totally ignore the firmly backed-up views of medical professionals and lock a woman up for three years. The most charitable view I could endorse is that he may be generally reasonable but that his decision-making in this area has been influenced by the general ideological climate in ways he does not realize. But that meager possibility should not be misinterpreted as a vote of confidence.
We've seen in the pain treatment issue the devastating consequences of allowing police agencies like the DEA to regulate medicine. It's also a mistake to give that power to judges, at least in this setting. Drug courts may in many cases keep people away from prison. In other cases, they may sweep others into the enforcement net for whom the system could otherwise not afford the full process of criminal prosecution. Coercive or mandated treatment raises serious issues for psychology, identity, medicine, civil liberties and cognitive freedom, issues the drug court movement prefers not to discuss. And there are troubling, unresolved abuse problems within the drug treatment world itself.
Overall, treatment over incarceration is probably an improvement over the status quo, perhaps a vast one. But it is not the ultimate goal. If a drug user has not physically harmed other people, has not destroyed others' property, has not neglected his or her children, then it's not a judge's business. And that means that lowering the sentences and offering treatment are not enough. Prohibition itself must go.