White flag on drugs

Posted May 16, 2010, at 6:46 p.m.

Few would disagree that drugs — legal and illegal — are more a scourge on society today than they were 50 years ago. In Maine, the abuse of prescription painkillers has been well-documented. Drugs like heroin, crack and methamphetamine, once seen even by drug users as dead-end substances, have returned to our cities and towns and no longer hold the stigma they once did.

Few would disagree that drug abuse demands government intervention. But the “war on drugs” approach is not working.

If the tide of abuse is to be turned, the focus must be on the health care problem that is addiction. Incarceration alone is a very expensive way to treat the problem, and it is a treatment with a poor success rate. It’s like treating all obesity with gastric bypass surgery.

One bright spot in Maine has been Hancock County’s adult drug court, which last month marked its fifth anniversary. After defendants who are deemed to be nonviolent agree to plead guilty to drug-related charges, sentencing is deferred. They then must work with a court-supervised team that oversees a yearlong rehabilitation program. The clients must work or be enrolled in an educational program, attend treatment meetings and be active with groups like Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous.

The program works — 28 of 38 discharged from the program succeeded in meetings its requirements.

The drug court approach began in Miami in 1989 after the city saw its jails overcrowded with inmates from drug-related charges who were addicted and ill-suited to become sober on their own. The year 1989 is significant in that it marked a 20-year nadir of the war on drugs; we now have 20 more years behind us on that change of course.

President Richard Nixon was the first to use the phrase “war on drugs” in 1969. After Watergate, it was revealed his motives were purely political. Campaign leaders also coined the term “silent majority” to appeal to the millions of white, middle-class suburban voters who were horrified by student protests against the war in Vietnam. The war on drugs policy resulted in federal law that made substances like marijuana illegal (typically, drug laws are made at the state level). This appealed to those “silent majority” voters who were angry about what they saw as drug orgies at events like Woodstock and who feared militant urban blacks with whom they associated drug use.

President Ronald Reagan revived the war on drugs fervor with the “just say no” campaign. Those who work with addicts report that approach was a failure.

To be fair, there is a logic to the “war on drugs” approach. By intercepting drug importation and punishing dealers and users with incarceration and property seizure, the idea is to diminish supply, thereby driving up cost. As the cost rises, fewer people will use, proponents of this approach believe.

But a more effective approach is to limit demand. And limiting demand comes through educating children before they use, counseling those who abuse and treating those who are addicted. The drug court is an important tool in this effort.

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