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March 3, 2005 - News Release (WA)

Leading Medical, Legal And Civic Groups Propose Workable Exit Strategy For The Failed "War On Drugs"

Bill Introduced in the State Senate Receives Hearing - Would Establish Special Commission on Drug Control

Contact: Roger Goodman, Rogerg@Kcba.Org, 206-267-7001 or 425-736-8009; King County Bar Association, 1200 Fifth Avenue, Suite 600, Seattle, Washington 98101

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Calling the War on Drugs a "tragic failure," a broad coalition of professional and civic organizations in Washington today called for the first steps in an exit strategy for the failed policy, beginning a fundamental shift in the way the state addresses the chronic problem of drug abuse. Outlining the parameters of a new legal framework for controlling psychoactive drugs, the coalition requested the Washington State Legislature to establish a commission of experts in the field to make detailed recommendations for statutory changes.

In a parallel development, the Washington State Senate held a public hearing yesterday on Senate Bill 6055, which would establish a special commission to make recommendations to the State Legislature on how to undercut the violent "black" market in illegal drugs, how to protect children more effectively from access to drugs and how to provide addiction treatment to hard-to-reach addicts who are causing public disorder and are a major public health problem.

Culminating three years of intensive study, the King County Bar Association also released a major report today, entitled Effective Drug Control: Toward A New Legal Framework (PDF Format) which is the product of a special task force of lawyers, public health experts, current and former law enforcement representatives and current and former elected officials and which sets forth the parameters of a new framework of drug control. The report is intended to provide policymakers and the public with a road map to help reduce wasteful public spending, to shut down the criminal gangs controlling the drug trade and to provide better treatment for addiction and better protection for children.

As part of its concerted effort to examine the War on Drugs, the King County Bar Association has strengthened links with other organizations in the legal and medical communities, and appearing at the news conference today were leaders from the Washington State Public Health Association, the Washington State Pharmacy Association, the Washington Academy of Family Physicians, Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Loren Miller Bar Association, the League of Women Voters of Seattle and the Church Council of Greater Seattle.

"This is a controversial topic, so we need to be very clear about our objectives," said John Cary, the President of the King County Bar Association. "We want to reduce crime and public disorder, improve public health, protect children from drugs and save public money. By any measure, the current policy has been an abject failure. It's outrageous that criminal gangs control drugs today and that children have such easy access to drugs."

"Physicians know that drug addiction is a curable illness," said Jennifer Mayfield from the Washington Academy of Family Physicians. "The costs of effective treatment are so much lower than the costs of incarceration, and where the harsh criminal justice approach has not worked, it's now time to focus instead on public health measures to address the drug abuse problem," Mayfield said.

"It's critically important that the public get engaged in the conversation about how to change our drug policies. That's why the League of Women Voters has been actively supporting this project from the very beginning," said Nancy Eitreim, President of the Seattle League.

Jeffrey Mero, President of the Washington State Public Health Association, said, "Persuasive and voluminous research indicates that a public health approach to drug abuse - stressing research, education, prevention and treatment - is far more effective than the use of criminal sanctions. However, the policy of drug prohibition, which has spawned a range of intractable problems, from a flourishing "black market" to the spread of blood-borne diseases to official corruption, has been a major impediment to employing such a public health approach. We're wasting taxpayer money by using a counterproductive criminal approach."

Rev. Sandy Brown of the Church Council of Greater Seattle said, "Treating drug use as a criminal matter rather than a social and medical issue has not been successful in reducing drug use, nor the harms arising from drug use. For over three decades we have been seeking new tools to fight the persistent crime problem that has inevitably arisen from the policy of drug prohibition, meanwhile distracting both the state and society at large from effectively addressing the problem of drug addiction itself. In the name of social justice we must find a more effective and pragmatic way to deal with this problem."

The King County Bar Association's 146-page report addresses key issues of the War on Drugs, including the following findings:

The number behind bars for violating the drug laws has increased eleven-fold since 1980, from fewer than 42,000 at that time to almost 500,000 today. As the "War on Drugs" has intensified in the past 25 years, the number of incarcerated drug offenders has grown by over 1,000 percent, nearly 40 times greater than the growth rate of the U.S. population overall.

Heroin is reported to be easier for high school student to obtain today than it was in the 1970s and 1980s and one in three high school seniors say that it is now easy to get cocaine, crack or LSD. Cocaine use among teens has risen recently and the average age at first use, particularly of crack cocaine and heroin, has declined significantly in the last dozen years. In addition, high school seniors report that marijuana is easier to get now than it was during most of the 1980s and 1990s and more high school students currently use marijuana than tobacco.

The White House drug control office stresses the importance of supply reduction efforts "to make drugs more expensive, less potent, and less available." However, despite federal expenditures of over $45 billion since 1980 on such efforts, the White House itself has reported that cocaine and heroin "street" prices have fallen to historic lows while purity levels have risen and remained stable, signs that the criminal enterprises trafficking in drugs are becoming more efficient, selling a better product for less. Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies across the U.S. continue to report that illegal drugs are "readily available" in urban, suburban and rural areas. The abject failure of current U.S. drug policy has finally led to calls for fundamental reform.

Copies of the King County Bar Association's new report, Effective Drug Control: Toward A New Legal Framework, are available here, or from the Bar Association's office by calling (206) 267-7001.

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