Lawyer Says Drug War Needs Major Changes
By Brian Kelly
America's war on drugs has failed, and the United States should take a new approach to illegal drugs other than throwing drug users in jail, said Roger Goodman, director of the King County Bar Association's Drug Policy Project.
In a speech Thursday to the League of Women Voters of South Whidbey Island, Goodman presented the outline for a new legal framework to handle drugs. The plan focuses on getting treatment for drug users, and includes suggestions such as retail sales of marijuana at state shops and dispensaries for addicts of drugs like heroin.
"The war on drugs is a failure. It's actually fundamentally flawed," Goodman said.
Punishment has not decreased the use of drugs.
"And if you try to clamp down at the source, it just pops up everywhere else. There's an unrelenting demand for the substances," he said.
Much work has been, and should be, focused on prevention. But Goodman said the just-say-no approach doesn't work.
"Our kids see through that," he said. "They see drug use at home and on TV. We're not in a drug-free society and kids know this."
Talking about a new approach to America's drug problem is controversial, Goodman admitted.
"In the drug area, we kind of keep running into a moralistic, ideological barrier. And so we continue to punish those who take drugs and lock them up."
Goodman has worked full-time studying drug issues in recent years as leader of the King County Bar Association's Drug Policy Project.
He recalled how a task force of professionals in law, from judges to attorneys, gathered to review America's drug laws and policies. The coalition has since grown to include numerous other professionals from the law, medical and social services fields.
"There's no hidden agenda. We're not a front for fringy, pony-tailed pot smokers," Goodman said.
"We have legitimate objectives to reduce crime, to improve health, to protect children and to save money."
Goodman touched on the reasons why some drugs today are illegal, and others aren't.
Often, drugs were made illegal because of the people who were using them, he said.
Coffee use was punishable by death in some cultures in the 1500s. Coffee made people more talkative, and the ruling class got worried when people started talking about the government.
"This is the history of prohibition, as we have taken substances to alter our state of mind, we become dangerous to the powers that be," he said.
His group's study on the issue, Goodman said, led to the conclusion that a prohibition against drugs just doesn't work.
But that doesn't mean a blind eye should be turned to drug addiction, he added.
Instead, the degree of state control over a psychoactive substance should reflect the degree of risk of problematic use and harm on society from each drug. A state commission should be convened to review how drugs can be regulated.
Laws already exist to hold people accountable for their behavior, he said, like laws against impaired driving. Still, the bar association's drug project has set limits on how drugs should be supplied to users.
"We're not talking about going to Bartell's and picking up your heroin," he added.
As it currently exists, the war on drugs can't be won.
"We've already surrendered. We've surrendered control of these dangerous substances to violent criminal enterprises," Goodman said.
As soon as one is stopped, another sprouts up to take its place.
What's needed, he said, is a new legal framework.
"Marijuana needs to be regulated. It's crying out for regulation," Goodman said.
He said marijuana could be suppled to users through private producers or medical co-ops, at a minimum, and perhaps through retail sales at state stores.
"That gets me scared," Goodman said. "Because then there's too much availability."
Even so, marijuana is already too easy for children to get.
More discussion needs to take place before a regulatory scheme can be created.
"We're just string to talk about this. We don't have the flesh on the bones yet," he said.
Meanwhile, Goodman said, work continues to find ways where law enforcement can work with drug users to intervene before arrests so addicts can get treatment. The opportunities for drug users to get help fall away after they are brought into the criminal justice system.
For example, just offering drug treatment referral information during drug arrests in Great Britain has show to be successful in getting addicts to seek help.
Changing the approach to illegal drugs is highly controversial.
"However, the political culture changes," Goodman said, adding that five years ago, treatment rather than jail was a radical idea.
"Somebody needs to lead. Somebody needs to keep pushing the envelope," Goodman said.
Island County Sheriff Mike Hawley said he was encouraged by talk about increased prevention efforts and treatment options, but said he has to enforce drug laws that are already on the books.
The number-one drug problem in Island County is alcohol use, Hawley said.
He added that he had only been to one domestic violence case in his entire law enforcement career where both people were sober.
"Alcohol is huge," Hawley said.