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March 14, 2007 - Rutland Herald (VT)

OpEd: Harm Reduction Is Key To New Drug Policy

By Robert L. Sand, Windsor County state's attorney

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My recent commentary calling for "Peace talks in the war on drugs" has prompted Vermonters to ask what a new drug policy might look like. Although many focus on decriminalization or legalization of drugs, these poorly defined terms tend to polarize the debate. Instead, let's try to find common ground by focusing on transformation -- transforming our current approach to drugs away from excessive punishment, absolute prohibition, and professed morality and toward an approach that emphasizes harm reduction.

A government's response to a drug should not create more harm than use of the drug itself. Under a harm-reduction model, each substance would be evaluated separately to determine the harm of its use and the harm created by our approach to its use. We would then devise a response tailored to the particular drug. For some drugs, we might find any and all use creates such personal harm that the drug must remain prohibited and an enforcement and punitive response maintained. Methamphetamines might fall into this category.

For other drugs, however, we might find that the black market and related crime and violence that result from complete prohibition create more public harm than the use of the drug itself. For these drugs, we might adopt a non-criminal justice approach, focusing on education, prevention, and treatment to minimize harm. Marijuana falls into this category. If we are committed to public health and safety, we cannot perpetuate a system that exacerbates rather than reduces harm.

Recently, the mayor of Barre simultaneously called for the death penalty for dealers of hard drugs and for the legalization of marijuana. Although advocating an extreme position, the mayor deserves credit for highlighting the need for a particularized response to individual drugs. Without a focused assessment of the harm created by each drug and by our response to that drug, we will fail to make significant headway in reducing drug use and drug-related crime.

It is important to re-emphasize that discussing a transformed drug policy should not be construed as an invitation to break the law. We can have a thoughtful debate about the future while continuing to abide by existing restrictions. Violation of any laws, including our current drug laws, is not acceptable.

Transforming drug policy to emphasize harm reduction requires us to change our thinking and approach in the following ways:

1) We must accept the fact that humans have always and will always use intoxicants and therefore reducing the harm of use is of paramount importance, even as we aspire to eliminate use.

2) We must increase funding for treatment, education, public health and prevention programs -- treatment and education change behaviors far more effectively than punishment.

3) We must reduce the stigma of addiction and lessen the punitive consequences for users, assuming their conduct did not harm others (addiction can never be a justification or excuse for harming another person). A lessening of criminal justice sanctions with a focus on treatment and recovery is part of the drug court model used in a few of the criminal courts in Vermont.

4) We must allow our medical and substance abuse providers to use a broad array of treatment options. Nicotine is used to treat tobacco addiction. Several countries, including our neighbor, Canada, have found similar success prescribing pharmaceutical-grade heroin to acute addicts to stabilize them, better address their addiction, and transition them off of the drug.

5) We must redirect law enforcement efforts toward the most harmful and violent behaviors and away from those that do not overtly endanger others. Over the last three years, criminal charges involving marijuana were the second or third most commonly filed criminal cases in Vermont. We cannot afford to maintain this type of criminal justice emphasis.

How do we move forward? How do we transform a highly punitive model into one that focuses on harm reduction? Here are three immediate steps our governor and Legislature could take:

1) Provide support and funding for drug courts throughout the state to work more effectively with users who come into the criminal justice system.

2) Call on our congressional delegation to amend the Federal Controlled Substances Act to allow states greater latitude in designing their own drug policies.

3) Create a gubernatorial or legislative bipartisan task force to look at what works and does not work in current drug policy and to make recommendations for changes in approach.

Even if our current approach was working well (a claim no one is making), it is economically unsustainable. Let's acknowledge that reality and start planning now for the future. These three important steps would begin transforming drug policy in a positive new direction focusing on harm reduction. It is time to move forward on drug policy reform.

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