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May 3, 2006 - Counterpunch (US)

Breaking the Political Taboo

The War on Drugs is a War on Ourselves

By David Bolton

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

I do at bit of volunteer work at the Gift of Hope home in East Baltimore, run by the Missionaries of Charity. The nuns follow in the path of their founder, Mother Teresa, as they minister to anywhere from eight to twelve men down on their luck. Many living in this three-story row house are addicts, spending their final days withering away from AIDS

The good sisters treat all the men the same -- with dignity.

This sense of dignity makes me think of the so-called war on drugs that our government has been waging for the past 35 years. Despite spending $50 billion annually at the federal, state and local level to prevent the drug trade, despite putting more people behind bars for drug-related offenses than any other country, the war has not made a dent into the drug trade. Business is booming, with up to $200 billion exchanging hands in this underground U.S. economy.

I remember back in '88 when Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke called for treating drug abuse not as a criminal problem, but as a health issue. Made sense to me. Most junkies are not bad people; they're just sick.

Any number of politicos pounced on the proposal like a dog on meat, denouncing it as extreme, dangerous and insane. Some liberals called Schmoke the most dangerous man in America. Naturally, the issue faded from our public discourse.

Kevin Zeese, president of Common Sense for Drug Policy, believes the nation is now ready for a different approach. That's one of the reasons he's running in Maryland as an independent for the U.S. Senate. For the past twenty years he and his organization have been a voice in the wilderness calling for an end to the war on drugs.

The Takoma Park lawyer labels the drug war as "laws of unintended consequences."

The man is a walking encyclopedia on this issue, citing that the United States has 5% of the world's population yet 25% of the world's prisoners. The Justice Department reports that over 80% of the increase in the federal prison population is due to drug convictions.

At a talk at UMBC, Zeese shared with students the Swiss experience. A decade ago they recognized that their war on drugs was failing. So they moved to "a public health approach," making treatment widely available. Despite their best efforts, hard-core addicts continued their pursuit of heroin. The authorities decided upon an experiment -- having the addicts go to the clinic where they could get an injection of heroin under medical supervision.

The result of this experiment? No overdoses or spread of AIDS among the participants. With the pursuit of heroin no longer a compulsion, their lives stabilized. Many got jobs and some kicked the habit after a year or two. Now the Swiss are implementing this approach across the nation.

Adds Zeese: "Most politicians are afraid to discuss this issue. More of the same is a recipe for failure; it's time for us to break this taboo and have an open discussion."

To reduce the ravages of drugs and free our communities from their bondage, we have to get at the market; reducing the demand could do that. Attacking the supply side obviously will never slow the flow of drugs. Think about all the people who deal drugs in the city of Baltimore. They are just following what bank-robber Willie Sutton said as to why he robbed banks: "Because that's where the money is."

Perhaps we could try something along the lines of reverse prisons. The only way junkies could get their dope would be to check in voluntarily. The only way they can leave is for them to accept treatment. Regardless, you treat them with dignity. I believe the addicts would come and the market would shrink accordingly.

Any approach has to be better than what the country is doing now. Let the dialog begin.

David Bolton is a writer who is president of WrightVentures, see

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