Drug Prohibition: Vermont Prosecutor Calls for "Peace Talks" in War on Drugs, Consideration of Public Health Approach

In an opinion piece published Thursday in the Rutland Herald and at least one other newspaper, Vermont's Windsor County States Attorney Robert Sand has called for "peace talks" in the war on drugs. Rather than declaring victory or defeat, "it's time to devise an intelligent exit strategy, one that includes consideration of a regulated public health approach to drugs instead of our current criminal justice model."

The current approach to drug policy, with its heavy reliance on law enforcement "may actually be counterproductive to public and personal safety," Sand wrote. Drug prohibition spawns three forms of violence, he noted -- structural violence (i.e. gun battles to resolve business disputes), acquisitive violence (i.e. drug addicts resorting to robbery to pay inflated black market prices for drugs), and to a much lesser extent, biopharmaceutical violence (i.e. people who get high and attack others).

According to Sand, any inquiry into drug policy must answer five critical questions:

  • If we are serious about addressing substance abuse, why do we treat addicts as criminals?
  • Given the addictive and dangerous nature of certain drugs, why do we allow criminals to control their distribution (criminals with a financial interest in finding new customers and keeping others addicted)?
  • Why reject a regulatory approach to drugs yet regulate alcohol and tobacco, two highly addictive and dangerous substances?
  • If a regulatory approach would increase health care costs, would those costs be more than offset by savings in the criminal justice system?
  • If our current approach is working, why have drug use, potency, arrest, and incarceration rates increased and not decreased as enforcement expenditures have gone up?

    Sand also suggested that a regulatory approach to currently illegal drugs could result in less drug use by adolescents, citing young people who say it is easier to obtain marijuana than alcohol. By moving away from prohibition to regulation, the "forbidden fruit" effect would also be reduced, Sand argued.

    Interest in changing drug policies should cross party lines, Sand suggested. "Drug policy reform should appeal to a broad political spectrum. Reform would allow us to treat addicts more compassionately and effectively. It would remove government from the private choices of adults. And it could result in substantial savings by reducing criminal justice and correctional expenditures. To suggest that proposing reform is tantamount to 'being soft on drugs' is to reduce a highly complex issue into a one-dimensional catch phrase. We can, and must, be more thoughtful than that."

    Lastly, Sand argued that change needs to occur at both the state and federal levels. Noting that the state, represented in Washington by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D) and Bernard Sanders (I), and Rep. Peter Welch (D), has some pull in the new Congress, Sand urged the delegation to influence change in drug policy. "Even if Vermonters sought a bold and courageous new approach to drug policy," he noted, "the federal government might seek to stifle innovation. The states and the federal government must try to work in partnership on these issues."

    Local prosecutors are a stalwart of the war on drugs. Only a handful have ever spoken out against it. Let's hope Sand's stand unleashes a deluge of them.

  • Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
    Looking for the easiest way to join the anti-drug war movement? You've found it!

    A Question of Intelligence?

    If aspiring politicians everywhere were required to pass a series of rigorous IQ tests before being deemed eligible for office we wouldn't have this fucking stupidity that is the war-on-drugs.
    Truth will out, but the waiting is a real pisser!

    Treat addiction as the disease it is

    In the old days we used to lock up people with epilepsy or mental illness, diseases for which there are both genetic and environmental causes. We now look back in horror on those times. Yet we now lock up people with the disease of addiction, a group of diseases for which there are also both genetic and environmental causes. How many years will pass before we be able to look back with equal horror at these times?

    If our government chooses to regulate the personal behavior of its citizens, wouldn't it be better to treat, rather than lock up, those who are addicted to substances such as nicotine, cocaine, alcohol or heroin?

    As a corollary to this question, wouldn't it be better to treat, rather than lock up, people with diseases such as diabetes, cancer, addiction or epilepsy?

    I do hope we will seriously review and modify the existing drug laws which have proven to be so destructive to our society. We have a wonderful opportunity to leave a legacy of hope for our citizens.


    Benjamin Weiss, Ph.D.
    Emeritus Professor of Pharmacology and Physiology, Drexel University College of Medicine

    Professor of Pharmacology and Psychology; Chief Division of Neuropsychopharmacology, Medical College of Pennsylvania (retired)

    Your sang-froid in the face

    Your sang-froid in the face of this monstrous absurdity is commendable, Professor Weiss, but I personally would like heavy-hitters like yourself to stoop to the most visceral of invective when commenting on something which can justifiably be called a crime-against-humanity!

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