SEATTLE -- A group of Washington doctors, religious leaders and lawyers has offered an "exit strategy" for the war on drugs - a proposal that would aim to dry up the black market for heroin, marijuana and other substances by having the state regulate their distribution.
"How we respond to drug abuse should not be more costly and cause more problems than the drugs themselves," said John Cary, president of the King County Bar Association, which is leading the effort. "We've got to find another way."
For now, the group is merely asking the Legislature to form a commission to recommend ways the state could regulate the drug trade. A bill introduced in the state Senate would do just that, though the idea faces serious opposition.
But the bar association also released a report Thursday that outlined what such regulation might look like: Registered addicts would be able to obtain limited quantities of heroin at state-licensed clinics or doctor's offices. That model has proved successful in some European countries, proponents said.
The drugs would be cheaper than on the street, providing incentive for addicts to turn to the state-drastically reducing drug-related crime and public availability. The drugs would also be free of unhealthy additives found in street drugs, and could be provided in a safe environment. Treatment would be offered simultaneously.
Because late-stage addicts consume the vast bulk of heroin sold on the streets, simply identifying those users and enrolling them in a prescription-type program would go a long way toward drying up the demand that fuels the illegal drug trade, Cary said.
Supporters include the Church Council of Greater Seattle, the Washington Academy of Family Physicians, the Washington State Pharmacy Association and Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility. They were quick to distance their proposal from "legalizing" drugs, a term that suggests "you can go to Wall Drug and get your heroin. That's not the case," said Roger Goodman, director of the bar association's Drug Policy Project. He prefers the term "medicalization."
Having the state put criminal gangs out of business and impose strict regulation of the drug trade would make the drugs scarcer, Goodman said. It would also dramatically cut how much the state spends imprisoning nonviolent drug offenders every year, a figure that tops $100 million, according to the report.
The report suggested regulating marijuana with a system similar to state liquor stores or by simply allowing people to grow their own - just as the state allows the production of home-brewed beer.
The report also offered legal reasoning for getting around federal drug laws, which are rooted in the federal government's power to regulate interstate commerce. The state could withdraw from the war on drugs by ensuring that only Washington state residents register as addicts. Stiff penalties would be provided for anyone caught reselling the drugs, especially to minors.
The bar association argues that states have power to oversee the health of their own citizens - an argument similar to the one being put forth to justify California's medical marijuana measure and Oregon's assisted-suicide law before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Switzerland has a heroin program allowing about 1,300 addicts to shoot up at approved centers with government-provided heroin, and the annual cost of about $8 million is covered by the state's health insurance system on the grounds that addiction is an illness rather than a crime. Swiss authorities say the result has been a drop in drug-related offenses, and that overdose-related fatalities fell to a 16-year low of 167 in 2002.
A clinic providing free heroin to addicts opened last month in Vancouver, British Columbia. The U.S. government would not back a similar program, David Murray of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington, D.C., told The Associated Press last month.
King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng said Thursday he disagreed with the proposal, but he credited the bar association for creating a dialogue that has helped lead to shorter prison terms and increased treatment for drug offenders in the past few years.
Chris Vance, chairman of the state Republican Party, called the proposal "the kind of thing the looney left supports in Europe."
"As long as I've been in politics, people have wanted to surrender the war on drugs rather than fight the war on drugs. I think that's completely out of step with where the people are," Vance said.
The bar association argued that the current war on drugs borders on insanity. There were 67,000 drug offenders in federal prison in 2001, compared to 3,400 in 1970 - and yet the availability and purity of drugs have increased while prices have fallen, indicating that drug trafficking organizations have become more sophisticated, the report suggested.
By contrast, the report pointed to a serious drop in tobacco use over the past two decades - a public health victory achieved without imprisoning a single smoker.
"It's easy to say, 'War on drugs, criminalize it, throw them all in jail,"' said Nancy Eitreim, president of the Seattle League of Women Voters, which supports the bar association's effort. "It's easy to say, 'Legalize it.' We're looking to find some middle ground."
The KCBA Press Release is available at: www.november.org/stayinfo/breaking3/KingCty.html
The full KCBA report is available at: www.kcba.org/druglaw/proposal/report_FullFinal.pdf (PDF Format)
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