Drug Treatment, Legality Backed

October 23, 2005
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer

Medical professionals, including a Hartford city council member, on Saturday called for a greater emphasis on treatment for drug users rather than incarceration and felony convictions that make it hard for former users to get their lives on track.

The remarks were made during a two-day conference, titled, "Illicit Drugs: Burden and Policy," that began Friday at Trinity College. Presented by the city of Hartford and sponsored by the Aetna Foundation, it brought together law enforcement groups, state agencies, city officials and national experts to discuss approaches to drug problems in Greater Hartford and the rest of the country.

Jane A. Ungemack, assistant professor of community medicine and health care at the University of Connecticut Health Center, said that most drug addiction begins when people are young. They experiment with alcohol and marijuana, she said, and those become "gateway drugs" to other more addictive substances.

Scarlet Swedlow, executive director of Washington, D.C.-based Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, said that the criminalization of marijuana is one of the reasons that it is a gateway to other drugs. Students tell her, she said, that it's easier for them to get marijuana than to get alcohol because drug dealers don't card them to check their age. That connection with the drug dealer "exposes them to the criminal market."

Swedlow argued that it should not be a criminal act to use drugs because young people make a lot of mistakes and a conviction for the mistake of using drugs carries life-long consequences. Those convicted of felonies, she said, cannot get financial aid to go to college, have a harder time finding jobs that pay a living wage and getting mortgages, and they cannot vote.

"A lot of our laws make it hard for people to turn their lives around and that needs to change immediately."

Speaking privately, conference chairman Robert Painter, a physician and Hartford city council minority leader, said that he agreed that addicts should be treated for their addiction rather than arrested. If drug users commit a crime such as theft to support their habits, he said, they should be for charged for stealing but not for possession of drugs that they intend to use themselves.

"We ought to decriminalize addiction," Painter said. "Marijuana should be legal, taxed. Control production, distribution and sales and make sure it doesn't get in the hands of kids. Use the money from the taxes for treatment and education and don't put it in the general fund."

Hartford has a good treatment program for young people, Ungemack said. The Hartford Youth Project, funded through a federal grant that's administered by the state Department of Children and Families, offers treatment to children ages 10 to 17. The project is run through a collaboration of various groups in the city such as the Hispanic Health Council and the Urban League who meet with school, police and other officials to tell them how to refer children and their families for help.

Broad outreach is critical in Hartford, she said, because so many of the youths who have substance abuse problems drop out of school or don't attend regularly, so there's no way to reach them through schools.

"Hartford has some of the highest quality substance abuse treatment," Ungemack said. "But there's probably not enough."

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