LAWYERS, COPS SPAR OVER THE WAR ON DRUGS
MONTPELIER -- If you ask Windsor County State's Attorney Robert Sand, the war on drugs is a bit like the war in Iraq.
Both are wars based on misinformation that have led to extreme human suffering, Sand said during a forum in Montpelier Thursday on drug policies. And both wars have no end in sight and are escalated by unsustainable surges, he said.
"It is time for peace talks in the war on drugs," said Sand, who supports decriminalizing marijuana and using a public health approach to rehabilitate addicts of harder illegal substances.
The law enforcement approach to drugs such as marijuana cause more harm than the use of the drug itself, Sand said. It's also expensive, he said, pointing out that a traffic stop for speeding may take 30 minutes while a stop that involves "a small amount of dried plant material" jumps to three hours.
"If the harm of our response outweighs the harm of the use of the drug itself, then we need to change our response," said Sand, who added that violence is only associated with marijuana when "transactions go awry."
Several of the panelists in the morning could not disagree with Sand more.
Assistant U.S. Attorney William Darrow compared the war on drugs to efforts to stop domestic violence or fraud. Those two societal problems also continue to exist, but it doesn't mean that law enforcement should stop its "ongoing response," he explained.
Darrow also told of a South Hero couple whose recent experimentation with OxyContin has resulted in severe addiction, prison, several trips to rehab and the state taking away their child. He said that is the reality of addiction of Vermont."If that sounds like 'Reefer Madness' to say drugs are poisonous and toxic -- but they are," he added, referring to the 1936 propaganda film that depicts casual marijuana use as leading to insanity, violence and death.
Barre Police Chief Tim Bombardier agreed, saying that decriminalizing marijuana would lead to companies marketing the drug to teenagers as it has tobacco and alcohol. He endorsed expanding prevention and treatment efforts, including expanding the drug court program to all of Vermont's counties.
"I have a one-word answer to the question of legalizing drugs," said Bombardier. "No."
But Sand found support in an unlikely place: Barre Mayor Thomas Lauzon, a public accountant who was elected in May 2006 and recently came out in support of legalizing marijuana and instituting the death penalty for heroin and cocaine dealers.
Picking up on a metaphor used earlier by Sand that if the drug war was a public company then its stockholders would be revolting, Lauzon said that it would have long ago been delisted for its results.
But the Barre mayor also endorsed the controversial idea of killing people who "mix methamphetamines with strawberry Kool-aid because 14-year-olds will ingest it easier." He said some people are evil and have no social value.
"At the end of the day, I think we are going to have to consider ( the death penalty )," he said.
Many attending the forum at Capitol Plaza Thursday seemed to endorse adjusting drug laws, including Cliff Thornton, who ran for governor in Connecticut with the Green Party on a platform of taking a new approach to the drug war.
Thornton, whose mother died of a heroin overdose when he was in high school, heaped praise on Sand for his position on drugs.
"You are one of the first who are looking at things in a practical and logical way," Thornton said. "You have tremendous courage and I just want to say, God bless you."
Allen Gilbert, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont and the organizer of the forum, said he hoped this discussion would prompt a larger, statewide talk on how Vermont approaches drug use.
The ACLU supports ending "punitive drug policies that cause the widespread violation of constitutional and human rights, as well as unprecedented levels of incarceration," according to the national organization's Web site.
"Drug policy is a topic that everyone thinks we should be talking about," Gilbert said. "And when we do sit down and do that it is very difficult because the way we think about this issue colors our views on the issue."
Indeed, sparks flew between Darrow and Sand as the assistant U.S. attorney accused the state's attorney of supporting the decriminalization of all illegal drugs. To support his contention, Darrow quoted from several newspaper articles on Sand's position.
"It states very clearly in this article that you support legalizing all drugs," Darrow said.
"Please don't base my position on a characterization in the newspaper," Sand responded at the end of an exchange that featured some interrupting and raised voices. "You were here to hear my speech."
Thursday's forum concluded with a panel on alcohol abuse and a presentation by former Middlebury College President John McCardell, who is now the founder of Choose Responsibility, an organization that advocates reducing the legal drinking age to 18.
Using a PowerPoint presentation and graphs from federal traffic organizations, McCardell set out to show that the reduction of alcohol-related traffic fatalities has more to do with safer cars than the 1984 federal law that forced states to increase the drinking age to 21.
McCardell said his research suggests that the rise in binge drinking on college campuses has resulted from the "legal age 21" law. Teaching alcohol education and treating 18-year-olds like adults who can make their own alcohol-related decisions will help stem that behavior, he said.
He did concede that his proposal is controversial. But he said it is a discussion that the country needs to have if it wants young adults to begin using alcohol responsibly.
"This discussion hasn't happened in 20 years," McCardell said. "And I'm naive enough to believe that if it does, my side has a reasonable chance of succeeding."
An early-afternoon panel with substance abuse professionals focused on a closer look at addiction. Rory Malone, an attorney with the Vermont Defender General's Prisoner's Rights Office, noted that nearly all the cases he reviews involve some form of abuse of drugs or alcohol.
Addicts often relapse, he said, and since staying sober is often tied to their release, they end up incarcerated again, he explained.
"You don't treat an illness by punishment," he said. [/FONT]