April 1, 2007
Commentary By Robert L. Painter, M. D.
I have had a chance to look deeply into the face of drug use in Hartford after five years on the city council. I have had many conversations in our neighborhoods, where one out of six children has a family member in prison. I've talked to prison inmates and convened national conferences at Trinity College on the drug burden the city bears. I have learned much about causes of and recovery from drug addiction and the social and economic costs of these problems.
Neighborhood gunfire forced a lockdown at the Dominick F. Burns Elementary School on March 1. Burns schoolchildren still pass by drug dealing on the way to school every day. Hartford is the Wal-Mart for illegal drugs; the market is the reason for the violence and most of the crime in the city.
Since President Richard Nixon's drug war in 1971, the United States has sprayed drug crops in their countries of origin, interdicted the transportation of drugs into the country, and arrested those who possess, sell or use illegal drugs. This costs us about $60 billion a year. Users spend another $200 billion or more a year buying drugs.
In spite of this, drugs are cheaper, purer and more available than they were 10 years ago. We are losing our children to the urban streets and our kids in the suburbs to overdose deaths. A handful of drug kings terrorize city residents, most of whom are trying to keep their children safe and to give them a better life.
The unemployed, underemployed and destitute cannot afford affordable, appropriate and adequate addiction treatment. These folks, largely in the cities and largely people of color, end up arrested and imprisoned. Eighty-five percent of the prison population in Connecticut is there for nonviolent drug-related crimes.
We will never eliminate drug addiction, just as we did not eliminate all of the problems of alcohol when we ended Prohibition. We did, however, get rid of the violence associated with the illegal alcohol trade. But when it comes to drugs, we stumble over new approaches for fear they will make matters worse. It is considered political suicide for legislators to talk of changing drug laws. But a large number of citizens are ahead of politicians in considering alternatives to our present approach.
Some of the difficulty results from misinformation. For example, most folks think that marijuana is a gateway drug. The fact is that only about 2 percent of marijuana users progress to hard drugs. We can't talk about new approaches without reliable data, and we do have that data.
It is time to begin the conversation about alternatives. I would suggest the following as starting points:
The federal government should encourage, not limit, research into the uses and dangers of marijuana and hemp.
Bring marijuana under the law to control its production, processing, distribution, licensing, taxing and sale. That would also keep it out of the hands of youth. We should treat it as we do alcohol and tobacco, substances that kill hundreds of thousands of people annually. Ironically, there are no recorded deaths from marijuana use.
Those convicted of nonviolent drug-related crimes of possession or use should, with the help of street social workers, be put into monitored treatment programs instead of incarcerated. The cost of an adequate treatment program is a small percentage of the cost of imprisonment.
We should monitor the experiences of countries that run medically safe injection sites for heroin. They have seen a reduction of violence, a decrease in hard drug use and less recidivism.
We should remember that relapse following drug treatment is the norm and part of treatment, and not a personal failure requiring punishment with prison time.
Nonviolent drug offenses should be considered public health problems rather than legal problems.
Funds to support such a program could come from licensing fees and taxes, from removing the financial incentives for an illegal black market, and from freeing up federal funds now used for the drug war.
Let's start the conversation for real reform.
Dr. Robert L. Painter, a Republican, is minority leader on the Hartford city council. He is a retired surgeon.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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