For decades our society has been prosecuting and imprisoning increasing numbers of people for possessing or selling drugs. Today no country in the world has such a large percentage of its population behind bars as we have, and a major reason is our "War on Drugs."

Unfortunately, as the drug-related prison population has increased, there has not been a corresponding decrease in problem drug use. In Connecticut and across the country, problem drug use has risen, as has the misery that it brings to the lives of the users, their families, and the community. Our response to drug use and sale has been a failure. It is time for a new approach to break the cycle of drug abuse and its casualties and offer drug addiction help and educate people.

My non-profit organization, Efficacy, is not advocating the immediate dismantling of our criminal justice system as a means of controlling the flow and use of illegal drugs and the harm they cause unless an effective replacement system is securely in its place. Nor are we advocating that the dealers and distributors be given a free hand to engage in their trade with impunity.

But we do want to spark an open discussion about the criminal justice system's inability to achieve the result we all want: the reduction of the damage done by drugs while not creating more harm than the use of drugs cause themselves.

While drug-related penalties have been drastically increasing, the number of hard-core drug users, whose use poses the greatest societal problems, has also increased, which is only one measure of the failure of criminal sanctions as an effective way to deter use of illegal drugs.

In contrast to the increased use of marijuana and hard drugs during a period when such use has been punished as a crime, we have experienced a remarkable decrease in use of tobacco by adults. Since the surgeon general began reporting on the health consequences of tobacco in 1964, per-capita consumption of tobacco in the United States has been cut roughly in half. This reduction was not achieved by locking up smokers.

Recent studies have documented that DARE and similar efforts supported by the federal government to prevent young people from using illegal drugs have been ineffective and, in some cases, counterproductive. We have left our youths confused or, even worse, skeptical of all such messages.

Some parents fear that reducing criminal sanctions might "send the wrong message" and lead children to think that using mind- or mood-altering drugs is acceptable. In doing so, we must provide a safety net of effective prevention programs for those who have not used such drugs. For those who have, we must offer adequate, accessible, and effective treatment. As we move to lessen and eliminate criminal sanctions, we must support a comprehensive education effort by parents, teachers, peers, physicians, and others respected by children.

The "right message" youths need to hear from messengers they respect is that using mind-altering drugs -- whether alcohol, marijuana, or other illegal drugs -- is risky behavior that can damage health and, in some cases, destroy your life. The right message is that the risk of addiction is significantly decreased for those who delay their first use of drugs. The right message is that if, despite warnings, a young person uses drugs, he should know the signs of addiction and should seek treatment without fear of punishment.

It is important to encourage young people to discuss the role of peer pressure. And it is important to discuss openly ways to reduce risks of harm if, despite the warnings, a young person decides to put drugs in his body.

Physicians and others in drug-addiction treatment know that drug addiction is curable. Drug treatment is "as successful as treatment of other chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and asthma," according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse. And the costs of effective treatment are much lower than the costs of incarceration. One can get over an addiction but it is much harder to get over a drug conviction.

Recognizing the need to shift from a criminal-law model to a public-health model in our approach to drugs, the city of Hartford and other organizations are mobilizing to examine the effectiveness of present drug policies. Lawyers, judges, doctors, scholars, drug-treatment professionals, and others are participating in this process.

We certainly do not claim to have a complete vision of a more workable alternative drug policy, but we are confident that we must move boldly toward the provision of effective treatment, now offered to only a small fraction of those who need it, and away from an excessive use of the criminal sanctions that have caused more harm than good.

Of course, criminal law will always have a role to play to assure public safety. Violent or other non-drug related behavior or driving under the influence of any mind-altering drug should continue to be prohibited and punished. And the unregulated distribution of drugs and, of course, giving or selling mind-altering drugs to minors, should continue to be prohibited and criminally punished.

Let's assemble the best and most experienced minds in Hartford to study alternative approaches to the problem of drug abuse. For instance, we can learn from the experience of European countries that are boldly moving to end their own failed criminal-law models. Our local and state governments desperately need the tens of millions of dollars now wasted on imprisoning drug-law violators to build treatment facilities and invest in prevention so we can build a safer, healthier, and more compassionate society.

We need to replace this underground economy with reparations-type programs to rebuild inner cities. After all, this is a problem created and sustained by the very laws themselves.

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Contact Us:  Efficacy   P.O. Box 1234   Hartford, CT 06143   860 657-8438