Drug War Peace Plan

A King County Bar group is getting national attention for its plan to reform drug policy by emphasizing regulation and treatment.

In his office at the King County Bar Association, attorney Roger Goodman pulls open a desk drawer and shows off a stash of his drug of choice—extra dark Neuhaus Belgian chocolate. He pulls out one of the tiny, 1-and-a-half-square-inch bars piled there. "That's almost an overdose," he says. "I break them into four pieces and take one an hour." He's apparently serious.

Dressed in a blue-and-white pinstriped shirt, prone to discursive monologues in even tones, the 44-year-old former congressional chief of staff is more policy wonk than druggie. And that, he is very well aware, is what has helped bring national notoriety to a years-long effort he has headed aimed at eradicating the war on drugs and replacing it with a viable, comprehensive legal system that would emphasize regulation and treatment.

It has become commonplace to hear people say that the war on drugs has failed, given the tremendous growth of the illicit market and associated crime despite billions of taxpayer dollars spent on the effort. Even some cops, like former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper and those belonging to the national group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, have begun to say it. But Goodman, in his capacity as head of the county bar's Drug Policy Project, has brought to the table the widest assortment of quintessentially respectable types ever working on the issue. Among them are lawyers, doctors, pharmacists, and psychiatrists, all participating as sanctioned representatives of their respective professional groups.

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the New York–based Drug Policy Alliance, the country's leading organization advocating reform, says that Goodman's coalition is noteworthy for working on not just incremental but sweeping changes. "It's probably the single most substantive effort anywhere in the United States to engage the elite on both those levels," he says.

It's the coalition's big-picture work that is the real first. Saying that the war on drugs has failed is not enough. The real question is: What's the alternative? That's the question that the bar's project attempted to answer in a report released in March that was the result of three years of deliberations. What the coalition came up with is not, Goodman insists, drug "legalization." In the parlance of drug policy reform, that term has come to mean lifting criminal penalties surrounding drugs and letting the free market take over. Goodman's group wants something quite different, as he articulated when he faced skepticism at a presentation before the Governor's Council on Substance Abuse. "I said, wait a minute, we're talking about limiting access more than today," Goodman recalls. "We're saying these drugs are so potentially hazardous, we're going to take control away from criminals."

Control instead would be firmly in the hands of the government, which would buy, distribute, and possibly sell drugs in accordance with a regulatory system using such measures as licensing and age restrictions. It's the alcohol or tobacco model, only one that would more seriously attempt to control use. Selling by anyone other than government officials, for instance, would not be allowed, nor would unfettered advertising. "No one's going to profit," Goodman says. "We're really talking about medicalization, not commercialization."

The coalition's report does not lay out exactly how this new system would work. Actually, only 16 of its 145 pages start getting into details. And those are intended to be a "menu of options," as Goodman puts it, rather than a precise, recommended model. But those options give a pretty good picture of what kind of system it would be. One central proposal is that the hardest of drugs—heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine—could be distributed only to addicts at government-run medical facilities for the purpose of treatment. Those who receive these drugs might even have to obtain "a proof of dependence" through a health exam. The government would obtain its drugs not from criminal networks but from pharmaceutical companies, which are legally allowed to produce cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin substitutes like the opiate laudanum.

Other possible ideas in the report include registration and licensing of drug users, with the possibility that a license might be retracted for irresponsible use; rationing that would limit the amount of drugs that could be obtained at any given time; even a "test of knowledge" about safe drug use.

The report puts marijuana in a separate category requiring less control. It envisions allowing people to grow their own and possibly licensing local producers. By suggesting that marijuana might be regulated similarly to the way hard liquor is in Washington state, the report also raises the possibility of state pot stores.

Reaction has, for the most part, been enthusiastic. "We're getting reverberations literally from around the world," Goodman says. He says that Canadian elected officials, embarking on their own version of drug law reform, have called and are eager to consult. So have a Hollywood screenwriter working on the issue and a hotel/motel magnate wanting to act as a financier. Working for a national organization called the Voluntary Committee of Lawyers as well as the county bar, he is now taking the report on the road, trying to encourage similar professional coalitions in other states. He just got back from a two-week tour that took him to Washington, D.C.; Miami, Fla.; Portland, Ore.; and Alabama.

Even in the conservative Deep South, he has found allies. Billy Kimbrough, a former U.S. attorney in the Southern District of Alabama, now a defense attorney in Mobile, has met with Goodman and agreed to introduce him to other lawyers in the state. "We spend far too much time and money worrying about drugs," Kimbrough says. "We'd be better off if we sold them." Alabama may be controlled by Republicans, but Kimbrough says it wants to reduce its prison costs just like every other state.

Not everyone is a fan, though. "He has left behind many members of the bar," says Dan Satterberg, chief of staff for King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng. Satterberg and his Republican boss do not oppose any attempt at reform. In fact, Maleng recently led the charge to get the state Legislature to scale back drug sentences and use the money saved on prison costs for treatment programs. Maleng's office is also a proponent of drug courts that allow defendants to choose treatment in lieu of conventional prosecution. But what makes that approach work, Satterberg says, is the "coercive power of the court." That power would evaporate in a decriminalized system in which the government was handing out drugs, even if it tried to encourage treatment at the same time. "Given the choice between treatment and drugs, addicts will choose drugs," Satterberg says. "Given the choice between treatment and jail, addicts choose treatment."

Goodman, however, points out that heroin-prescribing facilities are already working in Switzerland, England, and Vancouver, B.C., among other places, where they are reducing use as well as the crime and disorder associated with the street drug trade. While he acknowledges that addicts might continue to use, he stresses that they would still be held accountable for harmful behavior through other laws.

Goodman has fewer answers for another issue that Satterberg raises: the hazy ongoing role of law enforcement. "I don't quite understand how it's supposed to work," Satterberg says, referring to potential restrictions that would limit hard drugs to addicts in medical facilities. "So we arrest and prosecute people who don't want to use in the right way?"

Andy Ko, on the more radical end of the reform spectrum as director of a separate Drug Policy Reform Project operated by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, brings up a similar issue. He notes that there's a commonly accepted rule of thumb: 20 percent of drug users consume 80 percent of the drugs. It's a dictum that the King County Bar report takes into account by concentrating on the 20 percent of users who dominate the market, the addicts. But, Ko asks, "What are the other 80 percent going to do? They're probably going to want to buy from someone. So you're not going to solve the problem."

"There's always going to be leakage from the regulatory system," Goodman concedes. "That's the gray market." How that would be handled, however, is not something the King County Bar report goes into. Nor does it spend much time addressing another argument advanced by Ko, that non-hard-core users as well as addicts have a right to use drugs, and not just in a medicalized setting that amounts to "compelled treatment." It's a civil liberties stumbling block for a significant segment of the reform movement. For further details and debate, the report's authors call for the establishment of a body of experts to be convened by the Legislature.

There's an argument to be made that this exercise of dreaming up a new system is pointless. After all, drugs are prohibited at the federal level. "It would take an act of Congress" to change that, says Satterberg. It would also take a huge cultural shift.

But one has only to read the fascinating history section of the King County Bar's report to know that there have been remarkable changes of attitude toward different substances throughout time. Heroin was once thought to be a perfectly legitimate drug. In fact, it was brought to market by Bayer Pharmaceuticals in 1898 as a cough sedative. On the other hand, in the Middle East in the 17th century, frequenting a coffeehouse was punishable by death. Fact is, our culture is already shifting. That, more than anything, is what the King County Bar project has revealed by its very existence.

nshapiro@seattleweekly.com

The report of the King County Bar Association's Drug Policy Project can be found on its Web site, www.kcba.org/druglaw/index.html.

 
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