The University Record, May 20, 1997

'War on drugs' drubbed, defended

By Deborah Gilbert
News and Information Services

The nation's "war on drugs" came in for both a drubbing and a vigorous defense earlier this month at a "Harm Reduction Conference" sponsored by the U-M Substance Abuse Research Center (UMSARC). Depending on who was marshaling the facts, U.S. drug policy---while flawed---must either continue to hone in on a "drug-free society" as its ultimate target, or it should acknowledge that society will never be entirely drug-free, and focus instead on harm reduction and decriminalization.

The conference, designed to evaluate what we do and don't know about drugs and drug policy and to create some "reasoned solutions," according to

UMSARC Director Ovide F. Pomerleau, included a public forum in Rackham Amphitheater on May 6 and a roundtable discussion for UMSARC researchers the following day.

Herbert D. Kleber, director of the Division on Substance Abuse at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University and executive vice president of the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, defended the current policy, arguing that reduced use of drugs leads to reduced social harm.

If drugs are decriminalized or legalized, prices will drop dramatically and use will rise across the population. But it will rise particularly among teenagers for whom the "forbidden fruit allure will remain," Kleber said, citing the U.S. experience with heavy teen drinking and smoking.

Kleber acknowledged that "distributive crime" related to turf wars and sales would decline if drugs were legalized, but argued that street crime---violence due to the behavioral effects of the drugs or the need to steal in order to pay rent after the drug money was spent---would rise.

Kleber would, however, get rid of mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and support research on the possible medical uses for drugs such as marijuana.

Ethan A. Nadelmann, director of the Lindesmith Center, a policy and research institute founded in 1994 to study drug policy, and author of Cops Across Borders: The Internationalization of U.S. Criminal Law Enforcement, countered that the war on drugs is based on "faith that the U.S. can and should be a drug-free society, even though it is self-evident that the U.S. has never been nor ever will be a drug-free society. We must accept the fact that drugs are here to stay and learn to live with them in such a way that they cause the least possible harm to society."

Nadelmann noted that the number of prisoners incarcerated for drug-related crimes---mostly drug sales or possession---has risen from about 50,000 in the 1980s to 400,000 in the 1990s.

"Drug policies should be evaluated for their effect on death, disease, crime and suffering," he said. "The consequences of the arrests for drug crime are more severe than drug use itself---lives and nations are being destroyed. We should adopt a public health and educational approach to drug policy," including providing free needles and syringes to stem the spread of AIDS, "and leave the criminal justice system on the sidelines."

Both Kleber and Nadelmann agreed that drug policy research is inadequate and politicized. More needs to be known about the medicinal uses of marijuana for the 15 percent of cancer patients who don't respond to standard anti-nausea medications. In addition, researchers should attempt to design a computer model to examine the possible consequences of changes in drug policy---the impact on usage for the individual and society, the potential for different treatments, and the impact on relationships with other countries.