Drug Policy Reform Briefing Focuses on Treatment

Lynn PaltrowLynn Paltrow, National Advocates for Pregnant Women

Treatment — rather than persecution — for people with substance use disorders was the common message conveyed by speakers at a Capitol Hill briefing on drug policy reform.

NASW was a partnering sponsor of New Directions: A Public Health and Safety Approach to Drug Policy, which brought social workers, educators, law enforcement and advocates of drug policy reform to Washington in June.

U.S. Rep. Robert Scott, D-Va., said the time is right for a fresh look at U.S. drug policy, including drug conviction incarcerations.

“Rehabilitation ... costs less than just locking them up,” he said at the briefing that was also sponsored by the Drug Policy Alliance; the ACLU; amfAR; The Foundation for AIDS Research; the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation; the National Black Police Association; and Physicians for Human Rights.

Scott noted that a public health approach to drug policy rather than jail time is the right direction in any policy change. “We’re wasting money on prisons for political gain,” he said.

Lynn Paltrow, executive director of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, said most women in jail are mothers. “The drug war has encouraged misapplied laws,” she said. “It has the power to turn pregnancy into a crime.”

Sue GallegoSue Gallego, faculty, NASW HIV/AIDS Spectrum Project

She said there is no evidence that states prenatal cocaine use, for example, is any more harmful to a fetus than legal substances such as alcohol and cigarettes.

Paltrow added, “We use urine samples to judge people and whether they are a good parent. It doesn’t show how good a parent they may be.”

Melvin Wilson, manager of NASW’s Office of Workforce Development and Training, moderated one of the panel discussions on treating drug use as a health issue. He said it is important for major stakeholders in health, mental health and justice departments to work together to promote a unified plan that can lead to effective drug policy reform.

Sue Gallego, a member of NASW’s HIV Spectrum Project, spoke on the panel. “We need to see our clients holistically and see all that they are,” she said.

Gallego said the system needs to change to meet people’s needs. “We have to get over the stigmas we hold,” she said. “We need to expand our thinking and connect the dots.”

Kash Heed is a former chief of the West Vancouver Police Department in British Columbia and a member of the province’s Legislative Assembly. He noted that he has held high-profile commands in drug enforcement and anti-gang task forces. He said in his experience, the majority of drug use happens in private and is more frequent in affluent communities. During his tenure as chief, he promoted a policy of not pursuing addicted drug users.

Kash HeedBritish Columbia legislator Kash Heed

“[The U.S.] war on drugs for 30 years continues to be a failure,” he said. He added that communication among service providers — including social workers — will contribute to an overall improvement of drug policy reform. “We need to be accepting and respectful that addicts are people, too,” he said.

John Carnevale has served four drug czars in three presidential administrations. Today, he runs a public policy firm. He said a public health approach for drug reduction is long overdue.

Carnevale said drug use among the population remains at 8 percent despite decades of government efforts and different administrations to lower the figure. He said the government needs to drop programs that attempt to stop drug trafficking from source countries.

“We need to get to members of Congress to add money for treatment,” he said.

Sanho Tree, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and director of its Drug Policy Project, said attempts to stop source countries from producing drugs is futile since drug traffickers simply move their operations after one site is shut down.

John CarnavaleFormer White House drug czar adviser John Carnavale

The “war on drugs” over the years has resulted in an alarming rise in militarization of civilian law enforcement as well.

Radley Balko, investigative writer for Reason magazine, has written extensively on the overuse of SWAT deployments in drug raids. He said while SWAT used to be devoted to special circumstances involving violent situations, it has since grown to 50,000 deployments a year. Its primary use is now to serve narcotics warrants. Balko said that military equipment has routinely been used by local police agencies since the war on drugs campaign was launched by President Ronald Regan.

“Anger should be directed at our politicians, who constantly come up with this war rhetoric,” he said.

Other speakers addressed the need to reduce the incarceration rate for drug convictions, the call for substance abuse treatment and ways to reduce the harms associated with drugs and the war on drugs.

Officials from the Drug Policy Alliance said the briefing was an opportunity to bring together a broad spectrum of experts to examine the four pillars of any successful drug strategy: prevention, treatment, policing and harm reduction.