The Research Advisory Panel suggests to the legislature that whatever we have been doing in the area of drug abuse should be immediately modified. Legislation aiming at regulation and decriminalization should be formulated as novel efforts that could be quickly modified if unsuccessful.
—California Research Advisory Panel
The call for radical reform of the drug laws is, in essence, a prayer for an end to the hatred, demagoguery, crime, violence, and harm to personal health caused by the drug war. Reform advocates believe that while the currently illegal drugs are bad for our society, criminal prohibition in the American style is much worse.
Sooner than many clever politicians realize, a majority of the voters will demand change. In doing so, the electorate will not be voting sympathy for drug barons or approval of drugs but rather they will be coming out for peaceful compromise.
Reform should take place in two stages. The first stage should include those steps which are urgent, which should be taken immediately, and which involve the fewest legal amendments. This is a medical approach to drug control and focuses on controlling two major recognized illnesses, AIDS and drug addiction. The dominant philosophy should be that AIDS is a greater threat to society than drug abuse. Because injecting narcotic addicts are the major cause for the transmission of AIDS, our supreme objective now, tomorrow morning must be to lure virtually every one of them into some form of treatment. While our health system does have many good programs for addicts, those programs are underfunded and over puritanical.
The dominant philosophy of American strategy now appears to be better dead from AIDS than alive addicted to injectable drugs.
If, however, we followed the models of a few other countries, Washington and every major American city, would have a proactive, nonpuritanical health program. It would be replete with neighborhood clinics, trailers in drug areas, and an outreach effort to convince injecting addicts, prostitutes, and all those connected with the drug scene or at risk from AIDS to come in out of the cold for help. Radio ads and posters would imitate this bold message from a Liverpool, England poster, "Drugs Injectors and AIDS — Syringes, Needles, etc. and Condoms Are Available FREE — The Old Lodge, Church Rd — Tel 653-3871 — Strictly Confidential — No Appointment Needed."
The services offered would include politeness, compassion, a general health check-up, free needles within a needle exchange system, advice on safe injecting, condoms, advice on safe sex, and mental health counseling. In addition, there would be prescriptions from doctors for needed medicines, including for some patients medicinally pure oral and even injectable drugs.
There is nothing terribly new or even risky about the first stage because we can fly the experts across the oceans within a few days to start setting up tested programs. The risk is that we will delay their emergency commencement — and further risk the health and welfare of the entire nation. Current laws discourage most needle exchange programs and positively prohibit the prescription of injectable drugs. The necessary legal amendments must be made and funds reallocated so that such treatment facilities are available to every addict on demand.
Because so many political leaders oppose such health programs, it may be necessary for major law firms to work with enlightened medical leaders so as to clear a legal path through the ideological underbrush. As in the case of the civil rights movement, bigotry and ignorance sometimes cannot be fought only through political action and legislatures. Good lawyers and well-crafted legal actions then must move into the gap and start moving through the courts.
However these new health systems are achieved they should have a positive and immediate impact on the public welfare. Such systems competing with the illegal drug systems in, say, Washington, New York, or Detroit would mean that any addict or prostitute (sometimes the same person) would find immediate help at any one of many user-friendly clinics all over the city. Police stations, as in Amsterdam, would dispense needles to addicts and also advice on where to get rapid treatment, including legal drugs and more needles, as well as detoxification and drug-free programs. There would be fewer addicts in our prisons and more in clinics. These cities would not be drug-free or crime-free but they would be much healthier and safer communities in which to live.
When law enforcement does become involved, that involvement should be as part of the effort to provide assistance to people who need help. People violating drug laws should not be incarcerated. Instead, they should be provided the assistance needed to prevent anti-social behavior. Community service, job training, treatment or education should be supplied when it is needed. Intensive supervised probation should be used for most of those who must enter the criminal justice system so that they may be helped to become productive members of society. Incarceration should be reserved for the truly violent predators in our society.
Another immediate problem that should be faced in a more humane way is the availability of drugs as medicines. This includes marijuana for the treatment of nausea, muscle spasms, pain and glaucoma, as well as heroin and other narcotics, for the treatment of pain. While these problems are not as threatening as AIDS, they are a very immediate and real threat to hundreds of thousands of seriously ill Americans. Our failure to provide much needed medicine to seriously ill fellow citizens weighs heavily on the conscience of our nation and defines us in ways that should make us uncomfortable.
On a longer term basis, the real solutions to drug abuse do not depend so much on drug policy as they do on our economic, educational and social policies. We should look back to the presidential crime commissions of the 1960s and 70s. The recommendations made there are consistent with what we see as the solutions to drug abuse and crime today. Twenty years ago the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence compassionately observed: "To be young, poor male; to be undereducated and without means of escape from an oppressive urban environment; to want what society claims is available (but mostly to others); to see around oneself illegitimate and often violent methods being used to achieve material success; and to observe others using these means with impunity — all this is to be burdened 'With an enormous set of influences that pull many toward crime and delinquency. To be also black, Puerto Rican or Mexican-American and subject to discrimination adds considerably to the pull." The violence commissions summarized their recommendations in three words "neighborhood, family, employment."
That is where we should focus our resources. We need to encourage Head Start programs and after-school programs for children. We need to make it easier for families to stay together and grow together and we need to give people the hope and human dignity of a job that promises them a future. Unfortunately, as Judge Robert Sweet pointed out in his call for an end to drug prohibition, our society has been going in the other direction: "In 1986, 33 percent of families headed by persons under 25 were below poverty-level, a rate double that for 1967 and triple the 11 percent rate for all American families in 1986... Drugs have become an escape for those without a stake in society whose sense of self is weakened to the point that they will knowingly risk destruction and addiction absent an alternative motivation."
In the second stage, of reform, we must somehow confront the challenge of more rationally and peacefully providing drugs to those members of the general adult population who wish to purchase them. This stage is much more controversial than the first and would involve more sweeping legal changes. It will take more time to implement but its eventual adoption is inevitable. Many sensible, responsible officials believe that the way in which Americans dealt with alcohol is the way to deal with most illegal drugs. Joseph Galiber of New York, a black member of the state senate, has produced the most extensive legislative plan to date on this subject. It is contained in a bill he has introduced into the New York State Assembly. When Judge Robert Sweet made his historic speech in favor of legalization, he supported, without quite saying so, the Galiber model.
In essence, a state body would regulate the hours and conditions of the sale of all drugs. Thus, the rule of law would replace the law of the jungle. Sales would be restricted to adults. Drugs would be pure, properly labeled as to precise content, and the packages would contain health warnings on all of their dangers. No prescriptions would be required but, at least under the Galiber law, sellers would have to be licensed physicians or pharmacists. Places of sale could not be near schools or places of worship. The state authority would be encouraged to make all drugs available to adult residents of the state but the authority might decide to make some drugs (say marijuana, cocaine, and heroin) available legally but not others (PCP and crack.)
This broad approach would put many, if not most, street drug dealers and international barons out of business. Addict crime would be correspondingly diminished. As with alcohol, many problems would remain, including the commission of crime by citizens under the influence of drugs and drugged driving. Sadly we must accept their continued existence in minimal amounts as part of the reality of life.
In other words, with proper leadership Americans can be trusted to exercise moderation and temperance in regard to all manner of things. That is now the case, on the whole, with fatty food, with alcohol, and with tobacco. We Americans are abusing all of these substances less than in the past. There is no reason to believe that moderation and responsibility cannot be brought to bear on the currently illegal drugs once they are pulled within legal controls.
The power of such ideas was further demonstrated in recent months when the Research Advisory Panel of the California government came out with an historic report calling for an end to the war on drugs and a gradual repeal of drug prohibition. The radical report from this generally conservative official group of experts so shock6d the state attorney general that he refused to provide state funds to publish the document. Individual members of the panel then proceeded to reproduce and distribute the report at their own expense.
We close this review of the latest thinking on the drug front with excerpts from that report of the California Research Advisory Panel for 1989. The most influential social trends often start in that frontier western state, which just became the most populous in the United States. The panel's recommendations could well become the launching pad for fundamental drug law reform in America and in many countries throughout the world. It is just possible that the United States could then begin to lead rather than lag in the development of humane and enlightened drug policies for the 21st century.