Fighting The War Against Drug Policy

By LAURENCE D. COHEN This story ran in the Courant on November 7, 1999

She was naked. She was dead. The Hartford cops found her under an abandoned car. It was a heroin overdose that killed her.

Cliff Thornton, two weeks short of graduating from Hartford Public High School, was brought to the scene to identify her. She was his mom.

It would take a team of psychiatrists to explain Cliff Thornton's odyssey from that day more than 30 years ago to today. Thornton calls it ``destiny.''

Eight years ago, the 54-year-old Thornton founded Efficacy, a nonprofit think tank and advocacy group that favors the legalization of drugs: marijuana, cocaine, the heroin that killed his mother.

With a dribble of funds from friendly charitable foundations, he lectures, he does the radio talk-show circuit, he publishes a newsletter and a series of booklets, he makes connections with other groups that favor legalization or decriminalization - or at least harbor the notion that the war on drugs has been a miserable, expensive flop.

After 25 years at Southern New England Telephone, he quit his manager job to devote full time to the cause.

Thornton, who lives in Windsor, acknowledges that the vigil can be a bit lonely - but not as lonely as it used to be. He has attracted a board of directors that includes John Brittain, the former University of Connecticut Law School professor and one of the lead attorneys in the Sheff vs. O'Neill desegregation lawsuit; Carrie Saxon Perry, a former mayor of Hartford; Claire Sauer, a state representative from Lyme; and a smattering of professors and community activists from across the state.

Perhaps no one on the board stands out more starkly than Sauer, a white woman from a small-town district far removed from the urban battle zones in which the war on drugs is often fought.

``I think Cliff is great,'' she says. Sauer concedes that she (and some other board members) may be less enthusiastic about legalization than is Thornton, but they all share the belief that the war on drugs is an expensive failure. ``How can anybody say that the war on drugs is working?''

Sauer says politicians are falling all over themselves to sound tough on drugs, which discourages more serious debate on whether stuffing the prisons full of drug users and peddlers is appropriate public policy.

In recent weeks, the governor of New Mexico has called for drug legalization, as has the not-always-coherent Jesse Ventura from Minnesota. Former prosecutor Kurt Schmoke drew national headlines with his call for legalization when he was mayor of Baltimore at about the same time Carrie Saxon Perry quietly jumped on the bandwagon when she was mayor of Hartford.

Other organizations, including some sophisticated, well-funded outfits such as the Families Against Mandatory Minimums foundation, with chapters in 24 states, take on a piece of the action without supporting legalization. FAMM attracts a broad coalition of folks who believe drug sentencing is excessive and tilted against minorities.

Thornton, who is black, has a lot to say about race and drugs - a message as subtle and complicated as the man himself: one part Jesse Jackson, one part Jesse Helms. The war on drugs has been transformed into a war on blacks, he says. Meanwhile, black civil-rights leaders focus on trivia, such as how many blacks appear on television sitcoms, instead of demanding the dismantling of drug laws that snare those too poor and not well-connected enough to escape the criminal justice system.

Thornton says blacks are less receptive to his message than whites, in part because blacks see drugs as the instrument of their destruction and fear a worst-case scenario of out-of-control drug use.

At the heart of Efficacy's message, of course, is its alternative to the prohibition and lock-'em-up system that it criticizes. Thornton advocates the immediate legalization of marijuana and the reclassification of heroin and cocaine as drugs that can be legally prescribed by physicians.

He wants the prisons purged of nonviolent drug offenders who agree to treatment (funded by taxes on marijuana sales).

And what does he tell his two youngest daughters, 21 and 18, about the drugs that he wants to legalize?

``I tell them the truth. ... Cocaine is very dangerous. Heroin is highly addictive. But if you get in trouble, I'm not going to turn you out.''

L A U R E N C E . C O H E N is a senior fellow at the Yankee Institute for Public Policy in Glastonbury and a public-relations consultant. His column appears every Sunday and every other Thursday. To leave him a comment, please call 246-1000 or (800) 246-8070; Source No. 3643.