Last Thursday evening's ABC News special, "America's War on Drugs: Searching for Solutions," with Catherine Crier, was a brilliant overview of alternatives to the drug war orthodoxy, perhaps unprecedented in the American mainstream media. The show was followed by a discussion of the topic on Nightline, with Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, Partnership for a Drug Free America chairman James Burke, and Center on Alcohol and Substance Abuse director Joseph Califano. Since then, ABC has taken a lot of flack from those who are opposed to a realistic discussion of the full range of policy alternatives. It's important that reformers contact ABC in a show of public support. Please send letters to producer Jeff Diamond at the following address:
77 W. 66th St.
New York, NY 10023
or call (212) 456-7777 and ask for audience information.
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Following is a summary of the program, written by Jim Hoffman ([email protected]):
STATED PURPOSE: The claimed purpose of the show was 'not to advocate specific policy' but to 'open up the discussion' and consider new approaches, as this issue 'deserves debate'. It advised viewers not to dismiss approaches just because they seem too radical.
TOPIC: The show focused on those approaches to the drug problem known as 'harm reduction'. Although marijuana was touched on several times, the focus was on 'hard drugs' such as heroin.
FORMAT: The show was composed primarily of excerpts of interviews with various people, primarily advocates of harm reduction, stitched together with narrative by Catherine Crier and footage of police raids, prisons, people shooting drugs, etc. It is sprinkled with assertions by drug war zealot extradanaire William Bennett, which are in most cases followed by refutations which look much more reasoned.
SUMMARY: The show opened with some observations:
* We are losing the 'War on Drugs'.
* There is a striking lack of public debate about alternatives to current policies.
* The crime problem cannot be addressed without addressing the drug problem. And some facts:
* The 'War on Drugs' is the longest running war in US history.
* Over 300,000 people are in prison for drug law violations.
* There are as many illegal drugs on the streets today as ever.
It then interviewed Jim Montgomery, a paraplegic who was sentenced to life imprisonment for 2 ounces of cannabis (later reduced to 10 years) in Oklahoma. (He had no prior criminal record.) He smokes marijuana to relieve the pain of his broken back. It quoted his attorney pointing out that violent offenders are released from jail to make room for people like Jim Montgomery.
Next, three influential advocates of harm reduction in the USA are introduced:
Conservative California Judge James Gray:
* declares the War on Drugs has turned into a war on our people.
* points out nothing is accomplished by imprisoning drug users.
* favors government regulated distribution of drugs coupled with education.
Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke:
* points out violence in the drug trade is caused by profits, not by drugs themselves.
* advocates taking the profit out of drug distribution, through government distribution and a focus on education and treatment.
* points out only 20% of addicts can get treatment.
New Haven police chief Nick Pastore:
* is shown interacting with inner-city youth talking about drugs.
William Benett summarizes the prohibitionist mindset:
'You will never persuade the citizens of this country that drugs should be legalized.
' 'It (drug use) is a deadly and poisonous activity.'
'We must never admit defeat in the war on drugs.
' 'People should be imprisoned for long periods of time for using drugs.'
Next it moves to Europe and looks at the experiences with harm reduction in Holland and Britain.
* Use of cannabis is tolerated (scenes of people smoking up in coffee shops).
* Tolerance of cannabis is attributed for the prevention of the use of hard drugs by youth.
* A large proportion of crime is caused by foreign tourists coming from countries with more repressive drug policies.
* Prosecution is reserved for large distributors, not users of even hard drugs.
* Since free needle exchanges were introduced the HIV infection rate among IV drug users dropped from 11% to 4%, now one of lowest in the world.
* Public policy seeks to keep addicts healthy, productive citizens.
* There is still a black market in hard drugs, which many believe will not be eliminated until complete legalization is implemented.
* Holland is pressured by the US to roll back its harm reduction policy.
* Heroin maintenance, which seeks to stabilize and help addicts by providing pharmacutical heroin, is practiced.
* The physical health of junkies is ruined by adulterants in illicit heroin. (Pharmacutical heroin can be used lifelong without medical consequences.)
* People on heroin maintenance are able to lead relatively normal healthy lives.
* If given a chance, most people mature out of addiction, so heroin maintenance buys time, allowing the user to build a life as an alternative to addiction.
* A 15-fold reduction in crimes by addicts on heroin maintenance has been documented.
* Many on heroin maintenance are eventually successful in kicking the addiction.
Back to the USA ... treatment:
* America's lack of commitment to treatment is highlighted.
* The success rate of treatment (American style) is at best 25%.
* Ethan Nadelmann, a harm reduction proponent, questions the morality of policies which result in IV drug users getting HIV, perhaps infecting their lovers and children, and producing a huge economic burden on society.
* A study of the effectiveness of needle exchange programs in New York shows a drop in HIV infection among IV drug users from 6% to 2%.
* Dr. Lester Grinspoon of Harvard Medical School dispels the gateway theory of cannabis. He says cannabis is 'less of a problem than tobacco or alcohol by orders of magnitude'.
* US Government reports dispel gateway theory.
* The 1972 Shafer Commission, appointed by Richard Nixon, recommends the legalization of the possession and sale of small quantities of cannabis.
* The partial adoption of this strategy in California saved billions of dollars.
* The nation's leaders purposely ignore findings of Shafer Commission.William Bennett again: 'law enforcement is very effective prevention' 'legalizing cocaine would lead to between 40 and 50 million cocaine addicts in the USA'
* These assertions are both made to look rather dubious by subsequent rebuttals.
Drugs and children:
* PDFA commercials initially had "great impact" in discouraging drug use.
* The lack of education has recently led to increased use among kids.
* Due to prohibition there are pushers in schools - drugs are readily available in spite of (or because of) prohibition.
Memorable metaphor: Kurt Schmoke describes the drug war as a 'domestic Vietnam'.
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