Monday, December 19, 2011

How to Solve the Nation's Drug Issues

As a criminal defense lawyer I am in the middle of the muddy judicial system which is broken and in need of repair. Moral crusading politicians get on their high horses pandering to the ignorant masses (as in not informed & educated on issues) that respond well to catchy tag lines, commercials & speeches. The next thing you know we have more harsh laws, more people arrested and we are building more prisons. The prosecutors try to justify to themselves that their punishments stop property crimes and other offenses related to drug use. Me & other defense lawyers are spinning around so fast on the merry go round of fighting the DAs' approach of harshly convicting or unreasonably probating everyone (probation conditions so onerous they might as well be in jail) that everyone including the judges lose sight of the big picture . What solves people's drug issues ? Is throwing a kid in prison for years over crack possession gonna change him when he gets out (he is worse) ? Are we spending our tax dollars wisely ? What is in society's best interest ?

I've always felt there was something not right with what started out as Reagan's "War on Drugs" (even though I love Reagan, an actor not a justice scholar does he make). I have shared the sadness of too many clients being punished for something that should be treated like a disease and health issue not one reflective of an evil minded real criminal. Well the government of Portugal was smart enough to think outside the box & decriminalized all drug offenses and assigned their Health Department to take over. The results ? Drug addiction declined as well as the crimes that addicted people desperate for drugs will do (property crimes). Their story is a remarkably successful one. How can the greatest country on earth be the meanest when it comes to caring for its weakest citizens (we incarcerate more people than most third world countries) ? Time we be smart on crime and not aimlessly & maliciously "tough". Time we reevaluate our DWI laws too that just aim at punishing social drinkers (otherwise we would not use non scientific circus acts called field sobriety tests and widely known inaccurate breath tests to incarcerate and wrongly convict people).

Here is one of the world's smartest and wealthiest men's take:Richard Branson's blog on the "War on Drugs":

Visited Portugal, as one of the Global Drug Commissioners, to congratulate them on the success of their drug policies over the last 10 years.Ten years ago the Portuguese Government responded to widespread public concern over drugs by rejecting a “war on drugs” approach and instead decriminalized drug possession and use. It further rebuffed convention by placing the responsibility for decreasing drug demand as well as managing dependency under the Ministry of Health rather than the Ministry of Justice. With this, the official response towards drug-dependent persons shifted from viewing them as criminals to treating them as patients.Now with a decade of experience Portugal provides a valuable case study of how decriminalization coupled with evidence-based strategies can reduce drug consumption, dependence, recidivism and HIV infection and create safer communities for all.I will set out clearly what I learned from my visit to Portugal and would urge other countries to study this:In 2001 Portugal became the first European country to officially abolish all criminal penalties for personal possession of drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines.Jail time was replaced with offer of therapy. (The argument was that the fear of prison drives addicts underground and that incarceration is much more expensive than treatment).Under Portugal’s new regime, people found guilty of possessing small amounts of drugs are sent to a panel consisting of a psychologist, social worker, and legal adviser for appropriate treatment (which may be refused without criminal punishment), instead of jail.Critics in the poor, socially conservative and largely Catholic nation said decriminalizing drug possession would open the country to “drug tourists” and exacerbate Portugal’s drug problem; the country has some of the highest levels of hard-drug use in Europe. The recently realised results of a report commissioned by the Cato Institute, suggest otherwise.The paper, published by Cato in April 2011, found that in the five years after personal possession was decriminalized, illegal drug use among teens in Portugal declined and rates of new HIV infections caused by sharing of dirty needles dropped, while the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction more than doubled.It has enabled the Portuguese government to manage and control the problem far better than virtually every other Western country does.Compared to the European Union and the US, Portugal drug use numbers are impressive.Following decriminalization, Portugal has the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use in people over 15 in the EU: 10%. The most comparable figure in America is in people over 12: 39.8%, Proportionally, more Americans have used cocaine than Portuguese have used marijuana.The Cato paper reports that between 2001 and 2006 in Portugal, rates of lifetime use of any illegal drug among seventh through ninth graders fell from 14.1% to 10.6%. Drug use in older teens also declined. Life time heroin use among 16-18 year olds fell from 2.5% to 1.8%.New HIV infections in drug users fell by 17% between 1999 and 2003.Death related to heroin and similar drugs were cut by more than half.The number of people on methadone and buprenorphine treatment for drug addiction rose to 14,877 from 6,040, after decriminalization, and the considerable money saved on enforcement allowed for increase funding of drug – free treatment as well.Property theft has dropped dramatically (50% - 80% of all property theft worldwide is caused by drug users).America has the highest rates of cocaine and marijuana use in the world, and while most of the EU (including Holland) has more liberal drug laws than the US, it also has less drug use.Current policy debate is that it’s based on “speculation and fear mongering”, rather than empirical evidence on the effect of more lenient drug policies. In Portugal, the effect was to neutralize what had become the country’s number one public health problem.Decriminalization does not result in increased drug use.Portugal’s 10 year experiment shows clearly that enough is enough. It is time to end the war on drugs worldwide. We must stop criminalising drug users. Health and treatment should be offered to drug users – not prison. Bad drugs policies affect literally hundreds of thousands of individuals and communities across the world. We need to provide medical help to those that have problematic use – not criminal retribution.

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