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August 31, 2007 - New York Times (NY)

Column: Dispatches from the War on the Drugs

By John Tierney

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

I recommend a couple of articles chronicling the unintended consequences of the war on drugs. One, by Ethan Nadelmann, is a global look at the damage done by prohibitionist policies. The other, by Radley Balko, is a look at a doctor convicted for prescribing opioids -- and this case is in some ways more troubling than the Hurwitz case that I've been writing about.

Dr. Nadelmann's article is the cover story of Foreign Policy magazine, which summarizes the article's findings with large lettters on the cover: "Legalize It: Why It's Time to Just Say No to Prohibition." Dr. Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, shows how America has exported its preoccupation with drugs to the rest of the world, harming other countries and financing terrorists that pose a threat to America. (Not that this narco-financed threat seems to matter much in Washington. After 9/11, Americans were told that we had to revise our assumptions about the world -- and about little things like civil liberties -- but the drug prohibitionists in Washington don't seem to have revised their thinking one whit.)

"Looking to the United States as a role model for drug control is like looking to apartheid-era South Africa for how to deal with race," Dr. Nadelmann writes in detailing the failure of prohibition at home. After surveying other countries, like Afghanistan, he concludes:

"Global drug prohibition is clearly a costly disaster. The United Nations has estimated the value of the global market in illicit drugs at $400 billion, or 6 percent of global trade. The extraordinary profits available to those willing to assume the risks enrich criminals, terrorists, violent political insurgents, and corrupt politicians and governments. Many cities, states, and even countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia are reminiscent of Chicago under Al Capone -- times 50. By bringing the market for drugs out into the open, legalization would radically change all that for the better.

"More importantly, legalization would strip addiction down to what it really is: a health issue. Most people who use drugs are like the responsible alcohol consumer, causing no harm to themselves or anyone else. They would no longer be the state's business. But legalization would also benefit those who struggle with drugs by reducing the risks of overdose and disease associated with unregulated products, eliminating the need to obtain drugs from dangerous criminal markets, and allowing addiction problems to be treated as medical rather than criminal problems.

"No one knows how much governments spend collectively on failing drug war policies, but it's probably at least $100 billion a year, with federal, state, and local governments in the United States accounting for almost half the total. Add to that the tens of billions of dollars to be gained annually in tax revenues from the sale of legalized drugs. Now imagine if just a third of that total were committed to reducing drug-related disease and addiction. Virtually everyone, except those who profit or gain politically from the current system, would benefit."

Meanwhile, Radley Balko reports in Reason [Magazine] on the case of Dr. Bernard L. Rottschaefer, a doctor in Pittsburgh who's serving a five-year sentence after being convicted of illegally prescribing opioids. His arrest made headlines when he was accused of trading prescriptions for sex. But the allegations about sex were made by addicts who cut deals with the Drug Enforcement Administration and prosecutors for reduced sentences in exchange for their testimony, and their stories looked shaky during the trial. After the trial, as I wrote about in this column, the boyfriend of one of the women produced letters in which she repeatedly confessed to making up the story about sex in order to get a reduced sentence.

Mr. Balko reviews those facts and digs up new evidence that supports Dr. Rottschaefer -- and possibly implicates the prosecutors for misconduct. They persuaded a jury to convict him by claiming his prescriptions were unnecessary and outside the bounds of medicine, and caused damage to the patients. But the jury didn't hear evidence that emerged later in civil suits related to the case -- and that prosecutors omitted either out of ignorance or malice. As Mr. Balko explains:

"It's now clear that all five women perjured themselves in Rottschaefer's criminal trial-both about the bargains they'd struck with federal prosecutors, and about their own medical histories. One failed to inform the jury that she'd been diagnosed with several psychological disorders, allowing the jury to conclude that a breakdown she'd suffered in 2002 was due to the drugs Dr. Rottschaefer had prescribed her, not her underlying medical conditions.

"The other four had been or were later treated with medications similar to those Dr. Rottschaefer prescribed, and for the same conditions he had diagnosed. Meaning that not only were Dr. Rottschaefer's actions not outside the scope of accepted medical practice, they were actually duplicated by other doctors.

"It's unclear if [U.S. Attorney Mary Beth] Buchanan and her subordinates are guilty of basic incompetence here, or something more sinister. That they could look at what's come out since Dr. Rottschaefer's conviction and still feel he belongs in prison is telling, as is the fact that they've yet to charge their star witness with perjury, despite overwhelming evidence that she committed it."

Why haven't prosecutors charged their star witness with perjury even though they have abundant evidence from her own words that she committed it? I couldn't get an answer from them when I wrote about it. If anyone has any insight, I welcome it.

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