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2013 has been a boon year for drug policy reform everywhere in the nation except, sadly, in California. I have watched law enforcement evolve and implement strategies nationwide that reduce the harms of substance abuse, while national political leaders have embraced the drug policy discussion as a bipartisan issue. The most recent includes Senator Rand Paul and Senate candidate Cory Booker, who aired their grievances about the drug war on Twitter. Their tweets were tongue and cheek, yet discussed working on serious issues that have been exacerbated by many of the failures of the drug war, including mandatory minimum sentencing and the federal laws surrounding industrial hemp and marijuana.
I have been asked why I continue to maintain my voter registration status as a Republican in a two-party system that seems – well – utterly dysfunctional. More often than not I wonder myself, as I become increasingly frustrated with my local representatives (some not all) as they refuse to engage in the necessary discussions critical to fixing the many failings of our bloated criminal justice system. I believe that part of the intransigence of elected officials not just in Orange County, but across our state, is the fear of being perceived as “soft on crime” to the electorate or, worse, to public safety unions and professional associations.
This fear is unfounded as polling on not just the use of marijuana but around the success of the drug war reveals that the public does not support prohibition. The latest Gallup poll discovered that 58% of the respondents agreed that “the use of marijuana should be made legal.” Similarly a 2012 Rasmussen poll reflected that only 7% of Americans believe we are winning the war on drugs. Clearly these numbers can be used to show that ending the war on drugs is both sound policy and a winning issue for voters.
This piece is not meant to publicly “out” elected officials but to discuss the fear that merely acknowledging the Drug War’s failure will dash political careers near and far. This suggests the question: How do we create a “safe space” for both our political and law enforcement leaders to publicly acknowledge what most admit behind closed doors, which is that, indeed, our current policy is a failure. I propose that we start a Drug-War Addiction 12-step Program where lawmakers and law enforcement leaders can safely discuss why they are addicted to the Drug War (okay sarcasm here), and how they can change.
- The first step is admitting that one cannot control one’s addiction to maintaining the status quo despite all evidence that an unbalanced enforcement-only policy has not achieved any measurable success in reducing illicit drug use;
- We must than recognize that a higher power can gives us strength. In drug policy reform this higher power is “harm reduction” which is using a public health model to minimize the effects of drug abuse and our ineffective policies. Harm reduction is based not just on science and best practices, but also on compassion and respect for human rights;
- Examining and making amends for past errors with the help of a sponsor. Making amends requires that we acknowledge that part of our failure to change is the addiction to the many perks of the Drug War. This can include policing for profit under the guise of asset forfeiture, federal categorical block grants that supplement police budgets based on narcotics enforcement only, or Department of Defense surplus equipment (4.2 billion worth nationally since 1990) that has contributed to the militarization of our police. I propose Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) to fulfill that role, as we have already conquered our addictions by adhering to these steps;
- Learning to live a new life with a new code of behavior will be the most difficult as it requires changes in both ideology and policy. But we have many law enforcement leaders to emulate who have evolved and are now publicly acknowledging the failure of the drug war and have implemented successful harm reduction programs. Notable examples include the Seattle Police Department Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program which gives officers the ability to connect low-level, non-violent drug dealers and users with treatment and services as an alternative to taking them to jail. Or the Quincy, Massachusetts Police Department who have saved 170 lives by issuing Naloxone, which reverses opioid overdoses, thus linking policing and positive public health outcomes. And lastly, King County Sheriff Urquhart who recently admitted the failure of the Drug War in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee;
- But the last and most important tenet is helping other politicians and criminal justice professionals who suffer from the same addiction or compulsion to recognize how their support of a policy based not on science but on rhetoric has contributed to many of the shortcomings of public safety today. These shortcomings include law enforcement corruption, policing for profit, the subversion of American constitutional rights, excessive force, mass incarceration, racial profiling, death, disease and addiction, to name just a few.
So maybe my sarcasm really isn’t that ironic. After looking at the consequences of drug war addiction perhaps it’s time to make peace with drugs by implementing an abstinence-only solution to a 40-year drug war addiction. It couldn’t be any worse. Here, I’ll start. My name is Diane and I am a recovering drug war addict.