MONTPELIER — It wasn’t a surprise that a recent conference on state drug policies convened by the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont called for a smarter, more compassionate, public-health-based approach to addiction and crime.
What’s new are the messengers: people in positions of authority and power. The opening address for “Drug Policies: Are We Taking the Right Approach?” was delivered by Windsor County State’s Attorney Robert Sand, who compared the war on drugs to the current conflict in Iraq — a war, he said, that was launched under false and perhaps deliberately misleading pretenses, with enormous human and economic costs. “It is time,” Sand concluded, “for peace talks in the war on drugs.”
By virtually every measure, Sand argued, we are worse off now than when President Nixon first declared a “war on drugs” in 1971. Drug abuse, addiction and deaths are all up, as are drug potencies, drug-interdiction costs, drug-related crimes, arrests and incarcerations. “Frankly, about the only thing that has gone down in relative terms is the price of drugs,” Sand said, “exactly the opposite effect we’d expect to see if we were winning this battle.”
Sand suggested to conference attendees — who included Vermont lawmakers, police officers, lawyers and drug treatment experts — that it’s time to move away from a “one-size-fits-all, zero-tolerance approach.” He says it stigmatizes addiction and pushes users “into the loving embrace of the criminal market.”
Instead, he suggested, Vermont should adopt a “harm-reduction” model, which recognizes that people have and always will ingest substances to alter their consciousness. Under this model, he explained, each drug would be re-evaluated based upon the relative harm caused by its use. If society’s response is more harmful than the drug itself, Sand suggested, then the policy ought to be changed.
Sand cited marijuana as one example of a drug whose prohibition causes does far more damage than use of the drug itself. While he acknowledged that marijuana use may rise slightly if it were decriminalized, he believes the tradeoff would be a dramatic reduction in drug-related violence. “Is that a trade-off I’d be willing to live with?” he asked. “It is.”
But not everyone in the room was as supportive of a wholesale overhaul of Vermont’s drug-policy laws. Assistant U.S. Attorney William Darrow, who said he “disagrees with almost everything Bobby Sand said,” compared drug decriminalization as a tool for fighting addiction to “fighting fire with napalm.”
“No, we’re not winning the war on drugs,” Darrow countered. “But then again, we’re not winning the war on domestic abuse or robbery or fraud, either. These are ongoing problems, and our response to them has to be ongoing as well.” He argued that decriminalization would only increase the availability of dangerous and addictive substances, lower their prices and make them more accessible to minors.
Other critics, such as Barre Police Chief Tim Bombardier, expressed concern that decriminalizing drugs would add to the number of intoxicated drivers on Vermont’s roads. Such a policy, he said, would also complicate the job of law enforcement because certain drugs, such as marijuana, linger in the human body for days or weeks.
Among those on the panel was Barre Mayor Tom Lauzon, who made headlines earlier this year when he said that drug dealers have “no social value” and should be put to death. While Lauzon stood by his call for a mandatory death penalty for drug dealers — “It upsets me that methamphetamine dealers are mixing strawberry Kool-Aid with it because they find that 14-year-olds will ingest it more easily” — Lauzon wasn’t suggesting that drug addicts have no social or human value.
In the end, he acknowledged that the current drug war has been a dismal failure and a fresh approach is needed. And Lauzon called for a renewed emphasis on treatment, rehabilitation and public education.
Defender General Anna Saxman, who helps oversee Vermont’s public-defender system, echoed the call for renewed emphasis on public education. She pointed out that many women entering Vermont’s criminal justice system get addicted to drugs because they’re self-medicating to cope with underlying traumas, abuse and/or mental illness.
“What we see is a judicial frustration and lack of understanding of addiction,” Saxman explained. “So, when a person has violated probation once or twice already, the judges say, ‘All right, if you can’t control it on the outside, we’re going to show you how to control it on the inside.’”
No one in the room had to convince Clifford Thornton, 62, about the deadly effects of illegal drugs. Two weeks before his high school graduation in Hartford, Connecticut, he was escorted by two police officers to a field of abandoned cars, where his naked mother lay dead from a heroin overdose.
“There are no words to describe how I felt,” Thornton told a roomful of more than 100 people. “But one thought resonated as I came to my senses . . . All illegal drugs should be eradicated from the face of the Earth.”
Decades later, however, as Thornton watched his hometown of Hartford decimated by misguided drug laws, he began to question the wisdom of drug prohibition. “What I found was, we can’t win. This drug war is insanity,” he said. “And insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”
If there was any consensus at last week’s conference about these hotly debated issues, it was the need for more money for treatment, rehabilitation, prevention and public education. As Progressive Party Chair Martha Abbott noted, one of the only real “success stories” in the ongoing war on drugs — which costs the United States about $2 billion per week — have been public-education campaigns to stop smoking and reduce drunk driving. And, as Thornton pointed out, both of those successes were accomplished without making either substance illegal.