October 22, 2005
By STEPHANIE REITZ, Courant Staff Writer
Participants in a drug policy summit Friday at Trinity College agreed wholeheartedly that addiction is a serious problem, but were divided over whether that problem is fundamentally one of health - or of crime.
The conference, "Illicit Drugs: Burden and Policy," drew a large crowd with strong opinions about the causes and potential solutions of drug problems in Greater Hartford and the nation.
"Using drugs should not be a punishable offense; it should be a treatable condition," said Hartford City Councilman Robert L. Painter, who organized the two-day event.
Some who went so far Friday as to call for the legalization of illicit drugs say that eliminating the drug trade and controlling the quality of those substances would reduce addiction and the crime it often spawns.
"Let's think of something other than locking them up and throwing away the key," said Jack Cole, a former New Jersey narcotics officer who now heads Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an organization that supports the legalization of drugs. "You can get over an addiction, but you cannot get over a conviction."
But other people, including many Hartford-area police and court officials, said they shudder at the thought of city streets in which drugs are freely available, where treatment programs cannot keep up and where law-abiding residents bear the brunt.
"I would suggest that you'd better be careful if you let that genie out of the bottle, because you won't get it back in," said Hartford Police Chief Patrick J. Harnett. "I would not suggest it be done in my part of Hartford, in my neighborhood or in the area of the country where my grandchildren are being raised."
The audience at Friday's event also included several former drug users in recovery, some of whom said they have seen most of their childhood friends jailed, injured or dead because of drug use and crime.
While several law-enforcement officials, including Hartford Assistant State's Attorney Herbert Carlson Jr., agreed that more treatment options are needed, they reminded the crowd that under today's law, drug possession remains illegal and is prosecuted.
To the consternation of several audience members, Carlson also said he occasionally rolls down his car window when he passes community service crews - which often include people convicted of marijuana possession - and asks them, "It wasn't worth it, was it?"
Several people Friday said they believe the societal "war on drugs" has evolved into a war on poor and desperate people, especially black and Hispanic addicts.
"We've all heard the cliche that it takes a village to raise a child, but ask yourself this question: What if most of the village is on crack?" said Richard Burton, an NAACP national committee chair and moderator of one of Friday's panels.
The drug-policy conference continues today in Mather Hall on the Trinity College campus with more discussions of drug-control policies, treatment and recovery, the effect of drug addiction on individuals and neighborhoods, and other topics.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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