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May 2005 - Evergreen Monthly (WA)

Uncontrolled Substances

Our Drug Laws Have Failed Miserably - And Only Increased Demand. 'Harm-Reduction' Programs Could Change That

By Silja J.A. Talvi

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Try as our government may to make them go away, drugs never do. If anything, driving drug traffic underground has only made controlled substances more desirable, expensive and dangerous. Considering the potential risks to health (from infectious diseases and impurities) as well as to one's own freedom (arrest and long-term incarceration), it's amazing anyone uses illegal drugs.

But people do. They have for thousands of years. Consider that marijuana has been used for at least 4,500 years, and hallucinogenic mushrooms for some 12,000 years.

Here in the United States, of course, alcohol is the most popular "drug" of all. Save for the (usually ignored) age restrictions and the existence of our state-regulated alcohol sales, alcohol remains very legal. Once upon a time, that wasn't the case. In fact, by the 1920s, alcohol production and sales had become largely illegal, resulting in widespread deaths from contaminated "hooch," while all the while the illegal-but-lucrative business of alcohol became dominated by criminal organizations.

Sound familiar?

Drug prohibition has produced the same result, whether we like it or not. Of the over 2.2 million people locked up in jails and federal or state prisons, roughly one-quarter are serving sentences for drug-related charges. Shockingly, 55 percent are serving time for drug crimes.

Who Gets Hurt The Most

There's no question that many thousands of middle-class recreational users and sellers have been ensnared by the Drug War. Yet none have been more impacted than Americans struggling to get by on marginal incomes, limited job opportunities and substandard public education. Crack cocaine sentencing disparities have hurt blacks the worst. Over 81 percent of crack cocaine defendants in the nation are black, something that is mirrored in King and Pierce Counties. Don't make the common mistake of thinking that is because blacks just use crack more than other people-here or elsewhere. In fact, almost two-thirds of crack users are Euro-American. How's that for a wake-up call about the role of race in the drug war? The fact is that drugs are everywhere. Substance use crosses class, gender and ethnic lines: Rich folks do drugs; poor folks do drugs. CEOs do drugs; politicians, lawyers and doctors do them, too.

No matter what we may think about whether people should use drugs, the fact is that they're here and have to be reckoned with in a sensible fashion. These days, pharmaceutical companies are, in fact, pumping out some of the most popular-and toxic-drugs of all. The single most common form of King County's drug-related deaths were attributable to what professionals call "other opiate" use, namely to drugs like Oxycontin and Percocet. Those drugs helped to push King County's drug-related death rate up to 116 people in the first six months of 2004.

Alternatives do exist, primarily in the form of harm reduction-minded programs that meet users where they are. This kind of mentality views drug use through the prism of public health and compassion, helping to reduce the spread of infectious diseases, offering treatment when people are ready and providing nonjudgmental social services to address underlying problems when a person does become addicted.

Harm reduction is the norm, not the exception, in countries like the Netherlands and Switzerland. It is also becoming the norm in neighboring Vancouver, B.C., where users have long had access to clean needles and even quality-controlled heroin.

Local Sources Of Inspiration

We don't need to look across the border, either. Right here at home, we have reputable (but underfunded) harm-reduction groups like Street Outreach Services (S.O.S.), which once had offices in the heart of downtown's drug corridor-until city officials helped to boot them out. Does the idea of harm reduction sound too radical? It shouldn't. The King County Bar Association (KCBA) has gone a big step further, to actually recommend the state regulation and control of psychoactive substances. With the backing of a broad-based coalition (including the Church Council of Greater Seattle and the Washington Academy of Family Physicians), the KCBA took three years to study the history and consequences of drug prohibition. Their unequivocal conclusion, released in a sizeable January 2005 report, was that the criminalization of drug use had actually made the scope of the problem worse in many ways.

Prohibition has simply failed, once again. At least some of our representatives in the State Legislature are heeding the call for action:

Sen. Adam Kline (D-37th District) is pushing for the passage of SB 6055, which would establish a special consultative body to look at the possibility of a new legal framework for regulating illicit substances. The time to change the way we treat drug users is here. The criminalization of drugs hasn't gotten us anywhere but into trouble, both fiscally and socially.

Truly, how much more evidence do we need? It is high time for us to try something else.

Silja J.A. Talvi is an award-winning journalist and columnist for Evergreen Monthly. Email her with comments or EM Column ideas at

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