A group of local attorneys is criss-crossing the nation with an urgent message: The war on drugs has failed, and it's time to find an exit strategy.
Led by Kirkland attorney Roger Goodman, the King County Bar Association's Drug Policy Program has, for the past five years, been front and center in the growing debate over the drug war.
"The government must assert regulation and control over the drugs themselves ... to undercut the illicit market," Goodman said Thursday. "That means drug by drug we must determine what regulatory measures should be taken."
To that end, Goodman and the Bar Association have challenged the national legal community to consider a United States where obtaining heroin or cocaine would be as easy as getting a prescription and buying marijuana joints would be like purchasing a pack of cigarettes.
Goodman presented the decriminalization message in Seattle this week at a two-day conference titled, "An Exit Strategy for the War on Drugs: Toward a Legal Framework."
He hosted many of the country's most outspoken critics of U.S. drug policy, including former Seattle police Chief Norm Stamper, travel writer Rick Steves and Canadian Sen. Pierre Claude Nolin.
Most of those in attendance at this week's conference agreed that locking people up for nonviolent drug offenses simply doesn't work. Where they disagreed was on what should be done instead.
The regulation models offered by the Bar are sketched out in a report called "Effective Drug Control" by Goodman's Drug Policy Project.
Since he started bringing the blueprint to legal circles across the country, Goodman said, a growing number of legal scholars are taking the ideas seriously.
Different drugs should be regulated in different ways, giving the state more control over drugs that have greater potential for harm, Goodman said. Cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin would require the highest regulation. But marijuana needs less regulation because its risks are relatively low and anyone can grow it.
Supporters of the plan -- including the Seattle League of Women Voters, the Washington State Public Health Association and the Washington State Pharmacy Association -- say current drug policy has failed miserably by creating a high-profit black market that's impossible to stop.
National travel writer and TV-radio host Rick Steves of Edmonds has long voiced his dissent for marijuana laws.
"I'm just an American citizen who is tired of embracing a big lie," said Steves, who now sits on the advisory board for NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng was among the first to herald the failures of the drug war, but he disagrees with the Bar's efforts toward decriminalization.
Instead, he successfully fought for reduced prison terms for nonviolent drug offenders in order to free up state money for new treatment programs connected to county drug courts.
"People in the (justice) system believe drug addiction is a very terrible tragedy with victims," Maleng's chief of staff, Dan Satterberg, said at the conference Thursday. "If you are an addict, being in a court room might save your life."
By offering convicted addicts a choice between jail and treatment, he said, many who otherwise would never seek treatment on their own choose it to avoid incarceration.
"Treatment in the justice system works," he said.
As editor of the magazine and Web site Drug War Chronicle, Phil Smith said he's followed Goodman and his cohorts around the country over the past few years and he's impressed by the level of expertise and professionalism they've employed to deliver a message that in the past was shouted through a bullhorn by a guy in deadlocks.
"These guys here in King County are really on the cutting edge," Smith said. "They're finding a lot of kindred spirits across the country."
Goodman's traveling conference draws from the experiences of drug policy experts from around the world. This week's conference featured not only experts and officials from Canada but also leading substance abuse doctors and policy makers from Holland, Switzerland, Australia and England.
In October Goodman spoke at a drug policy reform conference in Hartford, Conn. The city helped fund the conference after city officials heard about some of the ideas Goodman and other speakers brought to Syracuse, N.Y., during a previous conference.
Cliff Thornton, executive director of the Hartford-based social awareness group called Efficacy, said many old east coast cities have had it with the war on drugs and they're searching for new answers.
"City councilers from Hartford and New Haven are very excited," Thornton said. "This is really the exit strategy to the financial crisis for every city in Connecticut, and I would venture to say every city in every state in the union, has suffered over the past three years.
"The three biggest items impacting their budgets are law enforcement, mandatory minimum sentences and prison building. And they just don't have the money.
"If we are going to have an appeal across the broad spectrum of society, we have to engage people. That's what we're doing here."
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