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January 4, 2007 - Times Argus (VT)

OpEd: The Time Has Come To Stop The War And Reform Our Drug Policies

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

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The time has come for peace talks in the war on drugs.

It's not time to cut and run or to declare victory and head home. Nor is it time to encourage or tolerate violations of existing law. Instead, it's time to devise an intelligent exit strategy, one that includes consideration of a regulated public health approach to drugs instead of our current criminal justice model.

As a career prosecutor, I see strong indications that our enforcement model may actually be counterproductive to public and personal safety. Violence spawned by the war on drugs continues to plague our communities. Violence exists in the form of assaults and murder by drug sellers as a result of deals gone awry or territorial disputes.

We see violence in the form of robberies and burglaries by users stealing money or guns to purchase or trade for drugs.

And, to a much lesser extent, we see random violence caused by drug-impaired people unwilling or unable to control their behavior.

Drug policy reform, to include regulated access to drugs, could substantially reduce all three types of drug crimes.

Any inquiry into drug policy must answer five critical questions:

1) If we are serious about addressing substance abuse, why do we treat addicts as criminals?

2) Given the addictive and dangerous nature of certain drugs, why do we allow criminals to control their distribution - -- criminals with a financial interest in finding new customers and keeping others addicted?

3) Why does this newspaper (Editorial Dec. 6, 2006) reject a regulatory approach to drugs yet we regulate alcohol and tobacco, two highly addictive and dangerous substances?

4) If a regulatory approach would increase health care costs, would those costs be more than offset by savings in the criminal justice system? and,

5) If our current approach is working, why have drug use, potency, arrest, and incarceration rates increased and not decreased as enforcement expenditures have gone up?

What about young people and access to drugs?

Would a regulatory approach result in an increase in use by those most susceptible to the damaging effects of drugs?

Maybe, but not necessarily so. Many adolescents will tell you it is easier to get marijuana than it is to get alcohol.

This suggests a regulatory approach might contain drug use by minors.

Moreover, if we intelligently reallocated criminal justice dollars into education and drug prevention, we might minimize the allure of these "forbidden fruits" and not see an escalation in drug use.

Drug policy reform should appeal to a broad political spectrum.

Reform would allow us to treat addicts more compassionately and effectively. It would remove government from the private choices of adults.

And it could result in substantial savings by reducing criminal justice and correctional expenditures. To suggest that proposing reform is tantamount to "being soft on drugs" is to reduce a highly complex issue into a one-dimensional catch phrase.

We can, and must, be more thoughtful than that.

There are no easy answers in the drug policy debate.

And certainly there are more questions to be asked than those raised above.

But we must ask the questions.

And we must ask them not only of our state elected officials and policy makers but also of our congressional delegation. The drug problem is both a state and federal issue.

With the recent elections, Vermont now has substantial power in the Congress -- power that can bring resources to the state but also power that can influence change.

Even if Vermonters sought a bold and courageous new approach to drug policy, the federal government might seek to stifle innovation. The states and the federal government must try to work in partnership on these issues.

The war on drugs is a war on people.

The time has come to discuss a better approach to this vexing problem.

I look forward to the discussion.

Robert L. Sand is Windsor County state's attorney.

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