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January 12, 2007 - Providence Journal (RI)

OpEd: Gov. Patrick, Fix Bay State Drug Policy

By Michael D. Cutler (Note: Michael D. Cutler is a lawyer with 33 years' experience in the public and private sectors. His practice focuses on murder appeals, mental health commitments and the impact of criminal justice and public health strategies on drug abuse and mental illness.)

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DRUG ABUSE presents such danger to public health and safety that it requires its own war, the War on Drugs. The tangible results of three decades of this war are a quadrupling of nonviolent prisoners, resulting in a steady diversion of state funds from drug treatment and to the prison system. No price is too dear for our health and safety, but health and safety are expensive to maintain.

The cost of our current abuse-prevention system, when measured in the lives lost to prison and a chronic lack of treatment available to a growing user population, is painful for its victims and expensive for taxpayers to bear. When the policy stakes and costs are high, leaders demand an accounting, to ensure progress on important policy objectives and to control the costs of a critical program.

For the mounting costs of this policy, the evidence of improvement in our health and safety is scant. Our existing arrest-and-imprisonment policy's impact on neighborhood safety, the incidence of drug abuse and adolescent access to toxic drugs (and nontoxic marijuana) has been a failure by any reasonable definition.

Despite such indisputable failure, state political leaders such as [the past] attorney general and most district attorneys uniformly have opposed legislative reform of this failed policy. Given the unsustainable costs in lives and money to maintain a war policy yielding dubious benefits, leaders should promote to the public the need for change, demanding visible improvement to health and safety to justify the war's costs in lives and money.

Many responsible leaders, including the late Massachusetts and U.S. Atty. Gen Elliott Richardson, as well as Watergate prosecutor Sam Dash, newscaster Walter Cronkite and former Secretary of State George Schultz, have denounced current policy for causing more harm to individuals and communities than the illegal drugs that the current policy seeks to interdict.

Leadership heeds the wisdom of experts and hears the growing discontent of policy victims and former supporters. There is a way to achieve the objectives that current policy fails to deliver.

A growing number of states, several with Republican leadership, are changing course from strict criminal prohibition of illegal drug use (including re-commitment for non-abstinence) to policies emphasizing honest education and abuse treatment instead of detention. These reforms reserve criminal intervention for crimes of violence, and reserve treatment resources for abusers rather than "mere users" whose use is not disabling.

The objective of reform policy is improvement rather than perfection, recognizing the values of stability, safety and self-supporting conduct can be reached short of zero-tolerance abstinence.

It is beyond reasonable dispute that drug abuse is a treatable disease with relapse being a frequently expected symptom that cannot be eliminated by imposing or threatening imprisonment. Current policy ignores this reality. Leadership is recognizing and acknowledging reality, however uncomfortable.

Mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders should be eliminated (as other states have done), returning sentencing discretion to judges, reducing the life-disabling impacts of prison and freeing the prison budget to fund more outpatient treatment.

Mandatory sentences already being served also must be changed, to allow the same parole eligibility as non-drug nonviolent offenders.

Given the 10-fold difference between the cost of imprisonment and community-based treatment, and the documented reduction in recidivism rates for treatment compared to prison, budgetary savings are inevitable. A prime use of these saved funds should be their diversion to secure drug abuse and mental-health treatment on demand.

Everyone seeking treatment regardless of income or insurance should have access to effective outpatient or residential (if necessary to protect public safety) care, with care-providers paid an adequate wage to develop continuity of care for indigent patients.

Government data establish that improved access to treatment not only reduces the incidence of abuse significantly, but also dramatically reduces the cost of government services from levels formerly consumed by stabilized abusers. This strategy will save more lives and money than our war policy.

One definition of insanity is repeating the same behavior but expecting different results. We have spent good money after bad trying to arrest and imprison our way out of the problem of drug abuse. Governor Patrick, by changing course you have an opportunity to lead us to a promised land of safer neighborhoods, healthier families, less drug abuse and lower state budgets. Your leadership can save lives and money.

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