HARTLAND THREE CORNERS -- In Windsor County State's Attorney Robert Sand's view, the war on drugs and the war in Iraq have too much in common.
Both are based on misinformation to the public, he said.
Both are based on deliberately misleading information, he added.
And both, he said, have "no foreseeable end in sight."
Sand, who gained national attention last November with his call for a dialogue about the regulation of illegal street drugs, spoke at a forum Monday night at the invitation of the county Democratic group.
Sand told the 60 or more people crowded into Damon Hall that he could see no reason why possession of small amounts of marijuana should be a criminal offense. The use of heroin and other hard drugs should be regulated, he said, rather than left to the control of drug dealers.
He offered a question that he said helps to bring the drug debate into sharper focus. "Are we better off now than we were 35 years ago in the fight against drugs?" Sand said. "Use 10 years, or five years ago, or one year. By every measure we are worse."
Addiction is up, violence is up, government expenditures are up, and access to drugs is up, he said.
"All those measures are up and the system isn't working," he said, noting that the trend doesn't mean police aren't doing their jobs. Instead, he said, it means there are inherent flaws in our approach to drugs.
The forum was sponsored by Windsor County Democrats. They heard him suggest that possession of small amounts of marijuana be decriminalized as a first step toward a new strategy on the war on drug issue.
Sand was joined in a discussion by Hartford Police Chief Glenn Cutting, Hartford defense attorney Michael Kainen, and Perry Edson, a substance abuse counselor from West Windsor.
Only Cutting spoke without reservation about the continued need for drugs to be illegal.
Cutting, who was a member of the Vermont State Police for 28 years before taking over as Hartford's chief four months ago, said since he became chief Hartford has had one cocaine overdose death, and has come close to having another. There have been drug crimes and assaults.
"But we don't agree on a whole lot about drugs," Cutting said, urging a three-point approach: education, treatment, enforcement.
Cutting said that while Vermont's jails are crowded, it isn't necessarily because of drugs. He said about 20 percent of the prison population is behind bars because of drugs.
But Edson said he believed that the figure was closer to 80 to 90 percent. He urged people to go visit the new state prison in Springfield and see how much money is being spent on law enforcement.
"We're losing this war, big time," said Edson, who works as an alcohol and drug counselor for a counseling service in Claremont, N.H.
Kainen, a former Republican state legislator from Hartford who served for eight years on the House Judiciary Committee, said alcohol was a much more violence-inducing substance than marijuana.
Of all the domestic violence cases he's seen, most are fueled by alcohol, he said. The only one he saw involving marijuana involved a couple that fought over one partner's spending money on the drugs.
"We're losing a war and we need a new approach," Kainen said, adding that the country needed a more rational drug policy including drug courts and treatment.
The vast majority of the population has tried marijuana, he said, and by luck they have escaped enforcement. Possession of small amounts of marijuana should be treated like a traffic ticket, he said.
"We need to start thinking in a new direction," Kainen said.
The forum, which was open to the public, drew thoughtful questions. Many cited the burgeoning costs of the criminal justice system, and the Vermont Department of Correction's budget in particular, as proof the war on drugs wasn't working.
Sand said he believed there would be a net benefit to society if currently illegal drugs were regulated, and he said a more humane approach should start with small amounts of marijuana.
He said he expects legislation will be introduced in the Vermont Legislature this year that would decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, with a fine levied rather than a criminal conviction.
"We need to take baby steps," he said.
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