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Drug Remedies

Narco-prosecutor-turned-law-professor seeks new answers to an old problem


Published November 28, 2012 at 12:27 p.m.

In eight years as an assistant U.S. attorney in New York City, Michele Martinez Campbell never once locked up someone for loose joints or single bags of smack. Her prosecutions took down much bigger game: traffickers who smuggled hundreds of kilos of heroin from the jungles of Thailand into the ports of New York City, and Mexican cocaine kingpins who moved pallets of illicit cash by the truckload. She wouldn’t even consider a marijuana charge unless it involved at least 1000 pounds of contraband.

Today, Martinez Campbell’s job — as a criminal-law professor at Vermont Law School — isn’t quite the adrenaline rush of the prosecutor’s job she left in 2001. Still, the New Haven, Conn., native has maintained a keen interest in state and federal drug policies. She recently launched a new blog, NarcoLaw, to explore how effective those policies have been in reducing drug use and concomitant crimes.

The launch of NarcoLaw several weeks ago couldn’t have been more timely. Successful ballot measures in Colorado and Washington State just resulted in legalized recreational marijuana use for adults. In a nonbinding referendum, more than 70 percent of Burlington voters endorsed the legalization of marijuana and hemp in Vermont.

But despite the growing pro-pot movement nationwide, Martinez Campbell says she’d like to see a more sober, dispassionate and fact-based dialogue about the pros and cons of drug legalization. That includes an exploration of the interim steps states could take in that direction, including drug de-penalization (eliminating incarceration for drug offenses) and decriminalization (making drug possession a civil violation similar to a traffic ticket).

Martinez Campbell is no newbie to the writing gig. Besides penning several hundred grand-jury indictments, she has authored four crime novels and has a fifth due to be completed next year. Seven Days reached her at her office in South Royalton.

SEVEN DAYS: Your bio states that when you left the U.S. attorney’s office, you felt the work you had done “made the world a safer place.” Do you still feel that way?

MICHELE MARTINEZ CAMPBELL: I do, because there’s a real difference between decriminalizing or de-penalizing personal use [of drugs] and looking for treatment options, and saying it would be a good thing to have a massive international legalized trade in all sorts of narcotics. I also think there’s a real line between marijuana and many other types of drugs that are much more addictive and dangerous.

SD: Your blog poses the question, “Has the drug war failed?” How do you answer that?

MMC: In some ways, I think it’s not the right question to be asking, even though it’s the question everyone is asking right now. It’s gained a lot of currency in the media to say that drug prohibition is too expensive and hasn’t reduced drug use. A better question to ask is, what are the most common-sense and appropriate drug policies? They may not include full-scale prohibition, where we criminalize every drug. We need to do a little more thoughtful analysis of what is acceptable and what are appropriate ways to deal with people with addiction issues, versus what drugs are extremely harmful that we don’t want sold next to the chewing gum in Rite Aid.

SD: What are some of the negative consequences of legalization?

MMC: One thing we need to take into consideration is that our extremely dangerous drug epidemic right now is with legalized, prescription drugs. So when you legalize drugs and get large pharmaceutical companies involved in selling drugs, you’re going to be in a situation where lobbyists are pushing drugs on doctors and pushing drugs into venues where people can obtain them a lot more easily.

SD: Isn’t that the situation we have now?

MMC: Only with regard to prescription drugs and alcohol. One statistic that gets quoted by legalization advocates is that alcohol is way more dangerous than any drug. I think it’s a false equivalency, because alcohol is legal and widely available and, other than getting arrested for underage drinking, there is no legal sanction attached to alcohol use, so it’s much more widespread. So before we leap off the cliff into full-scale legalization [of all drugs], which is something that a lot of people think would solve a lot of problems, we ought to think about the problems it would create.

SD: What’s your take on legalizing personal use?

MMC: If you look at who’s in jail, it’s not personal-use defendants. There probably is room for states to legalize personal use and for the federal government to back off, because they’re not prosecuting these cases anyway.

SD: The international group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition argues that when drugs are illegal, it’s the drug dealers who control the quality, profits, means of production and distribution. But if drugs were legalized, the government would control all that, no?

MMC: I would say that the people who really control it are the corporations that manufacture it. If we go forward with legalization of any drug, whether it’s marijuana or anything else, we would end up with corporate involvement and everything that comes with it. Yes, there would be tax revenue, but there would also be advertising, packaging and branding.

SD: Why is that a bad thing?

MMC: Because it’s going to increase use massively and we’re just going to end up with more people smoking pot or doing other drugs the way people drink now, which is often irresponsibly and to excess, and that’s going to cause a whole lot of other problems.

SD: How do you think the Justice Department will respond to the legalization votes in Colorado and Washington?

MMC: They’ve been very clear that they don’t support full legalization, because this issue has already come up around the medical-marijuana issue. This issue was already decided [in 2005] by the Supreme Court — in Gonzales v. Raich — which said that the federal government is free to make its own marijuana laws and the states can’t trump federal law. What’s happened around medical marijuana under Obama was, he came in and said, “We’re not going to prosecute people who are compliant with state medical-marijuana statutes.” And then there were states with really lax enforcement. For example, in Los Angeles you had all these dispensaries that were not observing state requirements. They were selling larger quantities, selling to people they shouldn’t have been selling to, and that’s where you saw the DEA raiding dispensaries. So with full legalization, [the Obama administration would] have to change its policy.

SD: What’s the likelihood of Congress acting on this issue?

MMC: This will be a five- to 10-year process. That’s my guess. I think you’re going to see a patchwork of states that legalize, and Vermont may very well be one of them. In terms of Congress actually deciding to legalize, and not just for medical use, you’d really have to change public opinion beyond where it is. For the first time recently, you had Gallup reporting that about 50 percent of people favor marijuana legalization. But it’s also true that once this really starts being debated, people will have different reactions.

SD: Now that other states have legalized, will decriminalization in Vermont seem like a day late and a dollar short?

MMC: I actually think that this makes it more likely that more states will take action that falls short of full legalization but would have a significant impact on how they regulate marijuana. So you’ll have some states saying, “Let’s take incarceration off the books,” or “Let’s make it a civil violation so we have some regulatory power over people if they’re getting into trouble with it.” And I certainly think there will be other states that legalize it.

SD: If Vermont were to legalize marijuana, what would that mean, practically speaking?

MMC: Vermont has a good and active U.S. attorney’s office and, unless federal policy changes, I think they would still prosecute significant [marijuana] distributors. It would be unlikely that the federal authorities here would prosecute people for personal use, so you’d have sort of a free zone for personal use, but distributors would still be in danger of prosecution.

SD: What would a successful drug policy look like to you?

MMC: To me, a big stride that’s been made in recent years is the drug-court movement. Instead of looking for punitive penalties for personal use, it looks toward treatment and understands that addiction is a disease rather than a personal failing. A successful drug policy, in my view, would also make more distinctions between different type of drugs than we make now, and may treat marijuana differently than other drugs because it lacks many of those addictive properties. But it would still be informed by meaningful medical expertise. I think we have to not be utopian about this, [thinking] that, if we legalize it, all our social ills will just go away.

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