Last Friday, on the second and final day of the "Exit Strategy for the War on Drugs: Towards a New Legal Framework
" conference organized by the King County Bar Association's Drug Policy Project
, dozens of drug reform leaders, academic specialists, and activists engaged in a rather unusual exercise. Led by Vancouver Coastal Health Authority addiction services clinical supervisor Mark Haden, who has been pondering such issues in the context of Vancouver
's living experiment with cutting-edge drug policy reform, the group confronted a series of dozens of questions about how two drugs -- marijuana and methamphetamine -- should be regulated in a post-prohibition era.
Should marijuana be sold over the counter? Should meth? Should there be restrictions on the hours of sale? Should the sales outlets be licensed? Should they be run by the state? Should there be limits on the quantities that can be purchased? Should medical approval be required? Should marijuana smokers be licensed? Meth users? Should information on health risks of the drug be posted at the site? Should there be restrictions on packaging of the drug?
And on and on. The group voted on each question with a show of hands, with Haden tallying the vote and assigning number values from one to five to signal the degree of agreement with the question. While Haden did not reveal the results of his informal survey, it was not the results as much as the exercise itself that was remarkable. On the second day of this groundbreaking get-together, participants had finally moved beyond the recitation of the familiar litany of drug war failures and harms and were beginning to confront the intricacies of what comes after prohibition.
And for a bunch of people presumably on the same side of the issue, the exercise showed a remarkable divergence of opinion about just how a post-prohibition regulatory model might work, with clear libertarian free market and public health models emerging. (One point of rough consensus came over UCLA scholar Mark Kleiman's pragmatic and provocative proposals for licensing of drug users. That went over with a fairly resounding thud, as it always seems to with the drug reform crowd.) It was an exercise designed to get people to think about regulation, and the fact that consensus was elusive is less important than the fact that reformers were finally looking at what comes next.
"We're not here to talk about what's wrong with the war on drugs," said KCBA Drug Policy Project director Roger Goodman. "We are talking about where to go from here." The KCBA Drug Policy Project has some ideas about that. The group has spent the last few years bringing together the state's professional organizations behind a proposal -- now manifest in the form of legislation that will be reintroduced when the session begins in January -- for the state to examine alternatives to prohibition. That proposal is supported by a massive KCBA study, "Effective Drug Control: Toward a New Legal Framework" released earlier this year. While aimed at Washington state, the KCBA model is applicable elsewhere, and with this conference the organization is making clear its goals extend far beyond the Pacific Northwest.
Thanks to Efficacy's Cliff Thornton and Deborah Small of Breaking the Chains, two of the few black faces visible at the conference, the ugly issues of race, class, and the drug war were not ignored. "I am amazed that for three generations we have allowed a disparate administration of justice without an outcry," said Small. "At every single stage of the system, we have outcomes that favor whites at the expense of people of color. If we were talking about anything other than drugs, people would say hold on! By creating a system where anyone who has the money and the ability to play it out can escape, we show that we're not fighting a war on drugs, but a war on poor and vulnerable people."
Such issues are at play within communities of color as well, Small said. "Most minority communities believe drugs are bad, and the immorality of drug use is reinforced by the churches. The notion that people have a right to consume drugs flies in the face of the communal traditions in communities of color -- we don't believe it's all about you. While you do see a backlash to over-policing, that doesn't mean the community is eager to take the leap to no control at all. There is a fear among people of color that if you had regulated, controlled drug markets, that would lead to more use." Class plays a key role, too, Small argued, even with the black community. "The use of drugs is associated with the lower classes," she said. "If you can pretend it's mainly those people in the projects, you can ignore the degree to which it is going on in your own house. It may not be crack or meth; instead, it's martinis or Paxil. To ignore the class aspect of the drug war is to ignore reality."
Small wasn't done yet. Drug policy doesn't exist in a social and political vacuum, she argued, and for would-be drug reformers to ignore the context is a grave error. "There is a strong sense that the regulation of alcohol and tobacco haven't worked because we live in a capitalist society where the bottom line is the bottom line," she pointed out. "If we don't have an approach that considers these economic issues, if we are not going to address the fact that the drug war has really hurt our communities, we are going nowhere. It really troubles me to think we are engaged in this policy debate without attaching it to the broader political, economic, and social problems we have to address in this country. Are the people in this room the ones who should be here? And who else should be here?" Small challenged her mainly white, mainly middle-class peers.
Efficacy's Thornton spoke of the need for "reparations" for communities of color devastated by the drug war. "We have got to acknowledge and repair the damage done," he said. Not only has drug prohibition wreaked havoc with minority communities, Thornton added, but regulation threatens to remove one of the few income-generating activities available in the nation's de-industrialized, low-opportunity inner cities. If we fail acknowledge and address that fact, he said, social injustice will only be perpetuated.
But "reparations" may not be the best word. "When people hear that, they automatically think we just want money," Small said. "But what we are really talking about is restorative justice, fixing the havoc we have wreaked on these communities." A crucial obstacle to ending drug prohibition is the opposition of the law enforcement establishment, and the conference confronted the problem of police and prosecutors head on. "How do you shift the mindset of police officers?" asked Seattle Police Sgt. Robert Benson. "They're generally a pretty conservative lot, and they are going to have to shift their thinking 180 degrees from seeing drug users as criminals to seeing them as victims. A more appealing way of reaching out to police may be to talk about the fiscal benefits of shifting the war on drugs into a treatment model."
"You can't just talk about recreational drug use," said Dan Satterberg, chief of staff to King County's prosecutor. "We are focused on heroin and cocaine and meth, and we believe these drugs create victims among their users and a lot of trauma in the communities where they live. We believe treatment works," Satterberg said, as he explained how Washington has moved from imprisonment to the drug court model and on to more recent sentencing reforms. There is a role for law enforcement, he maintained. "We can try to use the criminal justice system as an effective intervention point," he said.
Drug law reform will require that law enforcement get on board at some point, and former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper made a hometown appearance. "Many police agencies have developed their own addiction to the revenue stream from asset forfeiture," he told a Thursday news conference. "I went to federal drug conferences a decade ago, and we were told out front that the topic of ending prohibition would not be broached. Period. That mentality still exists today. It is utterly un-American and undemocratic, but it characterizes the federal government's response to growing concerns that the war on drugs just doesn't work. It doesn't, and we need more law enforcement executives to be honest about that."
Stamper is working on precisely that through his association with Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, the rapidly growing group of police officers and prosecutors who have broken ranks with the drug war. But in a sign of how tight the public police drug war consensus remains, LEAP is almost entirely retired police officers. There is much work to be done on that front, Stamper conceded.
By the time the conference came to an end Friday afternoon, it was clear that no consensus for a single post-prohibition reform model had been reached. Free marketers faced off against public health proponents and the medical model. And perhaps for a topic as all-encompassing as US drug policy, that is to be expected. But it was also clear that the American drug reform movement -- along with its allies in Europe and Canada -- has reached a consensus that the work of delineating the myriad failures of drug prohibition has been done. While the failures of prohibition will still have to reiterated repeatedly, it is now time to move forward and begin to end the drug war.