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January 23, 2007 - Journal Times (WI)

Speaker: U.S. Needs New Approach To Drug Problem

By Phyllis Sides

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

David Liners believes there are alternatives to the United States' current war-like approach to dealing with the country's drug problems.

Liners will share his views Wednesday at Olympia Brown Unitarian Universalist Church. He will speak on "The War on Drugs: A Failed War in Need of an Exit Strategy."

Liners is the executive director of WISDOM, a network of congregation-based organizations, including RIC in Racine County, which works to join the efforts of many people of faith in working for the common good.

Prior to his current job, Liners was the executive director of Milwaukee Inncercity Congregations Allied for Hope for 10 years. Previously, he worked for 15 years on Chicago's south side, primarily in the Mexican-American community.

Recently Liners shared his views with The Journal Times.

Could you give me a brief history of the war on drugs?

There was never a specific declaration of war. The "war on drugs" just crept up on us in the '70s and '80s. Richard Nixon was the last U.S. president to treat drug addiction primarily as a public health issue. Since then, it seems that every administration, on the national, state and local levels, felt the need to be more aggressive and punitive in its attack on drug abuse.

Nationally, from 1982 to 1999, the "drug war" budget soared from $1.6 billion to nearly $18 billion. In that same general time period, Wisconsin's prison budget went from about $200 million to near its current $1 billion per year level.

Local communities, like Racine County, keep expanding their jails - often approving a new jail expansion even before the bills for the last one have been paid. In the meantime, we have had no appreciable impact on the level of drug abuse. States that incarcerate more people don't have less of a drug problem or a crime problem than the states like ours that have quadrupled their jail and prison populations.

Our country's warlike attack on the drug problem has not made us any safer or healthier than places like Canada, which locks up a lot less people than we do. The good news is that the war on drugs might be nearing its end. More and more policy makers, of every political persuasion, are realizing we just can't afford the monetary and societal costs.

Why is it a failure?

The war on drugs has failed because it is the wrong solution. Drug and alcohol addiction is a public health issue and a social issue. We need a public health response. Think of the drug problem as a matter of supply and demand. As long as there is a demand for illegal drugs, somebody will find a way to supply them. If we lock up the young man on the corner who is selling drugs, he will be replaced in 24 hours. When we close down a drug house, another one opens up.

If you put one drug dealer out of business, you create a boom for his competitor down the street. No matter how many people we put in jail or prison, we will never deal with the problem unless we deal with the "demand" through treatment and prevention programs.

The "War on Drugs" has not just failed. Like many well-intentioned but misguided efforts, it has caused more problems than it has solved. For example: A small-time drug dealer who was trying to make money to support his or her own addiction gets locked up and returns to the community a few months or years later as a felon. It is harder to get a job and impossible to get a student loan. All his or her new friends were made "on the inside." In the meantime, he or she has probably not gotten help for the addiction while in jail. This person, who started off as a decent kid with a drug problem is now in danger of becoming an habitual offender.

What exit strategies are available?

The good news is that we have a lot of exit strategies available to us. The biggest is drug and alcohol treatment programs. If we can put our resources into helping people get over their underlying problem, we can get them back to work and their families without getting them into the cycle of involvement with the criminal justice system.

Even if it takes a few tries before the person manages to stick with their recovery program, it is much more efficient than sending everybody to jail. I have a friend who has had three open heart surgeries. I don't think the first two were failures!

Likewise, some people need to get help for addiction problems more than once. Another exit strategy is to move some resources out of jails and prisons and into schools and healthy activities for kids.

How long have you been working on the problem?

I have been working on this issue for about eight years. I started to deal with it when I worked with an organization called MICAH in Milwaukee. We were working on issues of neighborhood safety. We realized that, in many city neighborhoods, the crime problem was related to drug sales.

So, we started a program to close down drug houses. We were successful, in that we helped to close down hundreds of drug houses and we continue to do that. We also realized that others were opening up as fast as the first ones were closed.

So, we started to work on the "demand" problem. We found that the money available for uninsured low-income people to get into drug and alcohol treatment programs was dropping every year. It bottomed out in the same year we found millions to pay for a new baseball stadium. Our church members, especially in the central city, started talking about how more and more of their neighbors, friends and relatives were going to jail. I remember Rev. Harris from Tabernacle Community Baptist Church (Milwaukee) saying, "people with money and drug problems go to treatment; poor people with drug problems go to jail."

As people of faith we could not accept that. So, we started fighting to change the strategies - to stop declaring war on poor folks with drug problems and to start a campaign to help people get better. The effort has spread to all kinds of communities all over the state.

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