Jill Harris: War on Drugs has Failed

Jill Harris over at the Drug Policy Alliance had a great opinion piece in the Bangor Daily News (don’t ask me how I find this stuff). In it she argues that Maine Governor Gary LePage is taking the wrong path in terms of dealing with the state’s budding heroin epidemic, actively juxtaposing the Lepage’s proposal against that of Vermont’s Governor, Pete Shumlin. Whereas Shumlin acknowledges the drug problem as a public health issue and seems keen to address it as such, LePage continues to regurgitate that tired “war on drugs” rhetoric that has failed to solve the problem:

In Vermont, Shumlin spent his entire state of the state speech in January addressing what he called “a full-blown heroin crisis.” He noted that in 2012, twice as many people died of heroin overdose as did in 2011. He commended the police, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges who work hard on “the criminal side” of drug addiction under tough circumstances. But he said, “we must bolster our approach to addiction with more common sense. We must address it as a public health crisis, providing treatment and support, rather than simply doling out punishment, claiming victory, and moving onto the next conviction.”

Shumlin backed up his call for treatment with nearly $1 million in new funding for treatment. Last year Vermont passed the most far-reaching good Samaritan bill in the country and an effective naloxone access law that has already saved lives.

In Maine, LePage also addressed the heroin problem in his state of the state address and pointed out that “four times as many people died from a heroin overdose in 2012 than in 2011.” But he still, literally, used the language and approach of the “war on drugs.” He proposed no additional treatment resources; in fact, as governor he has cut funding for drug treatment. Instead, he proposed more funding for drug enforcement agents, prosecutors and judges. Last year he vetoed a watered-down good Samaritan bill, and has opposed a naloxone bill this legislative session.

In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared the “war on drugs.” Over the course of that war, over a trillion dollars was spent on get-tough approaches to the drug problem. And 43 years later, what do we have to show for it? A massive prison system that contains almost 25 percent of all the prisoners in the world, even though the United States has only about 5 percent of the world’s population. Local police forces that are increasingly militarized, with high-tech war-making equipment that would be the envy of army generals in many countries. Untold opportunity costs, in money not spent on schools, health and infrastructure to benefit the people of our country.

All this might have been worth it if we had won the war on drugs. But today drugs are cheaper and more available than ever, and there are more varieties of them. Which has led 82 percent of Americans, according to a 2012 Rasmussen poll, to say that the war on drugs is a failure. But LePage seems not to have gotten the memo.

You really should read the whole thing. At the same time, remember that the war on drugs has not been one waged evenly against all citizens and the consequences have been disproportionately shouldered on the backs of young black and hispanic men.



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