FILLING THE VACUUM: TURNING OUR "WAR ON THE WAR" INTO A PROACTIVE AGENDA
Address of Ross C. "Rocky" Anderson
Mayor of Salt Lake City, Utah
Friday, June 1, 2001
Albuquerque, New Mexico
When politicians and candidates are asked about their earlier use of drugs, the usual response is to excuse the behavior as a "youthful indiscretion." They simply "experimented." After dodging the questions about their own conduct, as President Bush continues to do, they seek to avoid looking soft on crime by recommending monumental increases in drug interdiction and source control funding or further increases in the punishment we administer to drug offenders. While the politician's only punishment for his or her drug use may be a few jabs on Saturday Night Live, thousands of American lives have been destroyed, and thousands of families have been torn apart, for making similar mistakes . . . and getting caught.
That's what happened to Corry Stringfellow, a young, intelligent, non-violent drug offender from Utah, whose family I have come to know well over the last several years. Because of Cory's involvement with drugs during his teens and early 20s, and because he panicked and fled just before his sentencing, he was sentenced under inflexible federal guidelines to 188 months—more than 15 ½ years—in a federal penitentiary.
Cory, like many of the other half million Americans currently serving time on drug sentences, did not deserve, nor would he be helped by, such an extreme sentence. Neither the efforts of the drug war nor American society would see any benefit from the nearly $465,000 his full prison sentence would have cost. Nor would we be any better off for locking Cory away for 15½ years, ruining the enormous potential of this young man.
While in prison, Cory struggled with the despair his actions had imposed on his life. He came to terms with his mistakes and quickly resolved to turn his life around while serving time. He read hundreds of books, earned a masters degree, and completed the prison's drug therapy classes, yet still stood to spend another decade in prison.
Unlike many, Cory had the backing of many supportive people who worked to offer him a second chance. His loving family and the terrific people at Families Against Mandatory Minimums would not stop working on his behalf until justice was served. They contacted me, and we worked hard for a commutation. I went to Washington, D.C. and had the opportunity to meet briefly with President Clinton. I worked with our conservative Republican senators, who came to understand the excessiveness of Cory's sentence. Senator Hatch, who is now aggressively pursuing major legislation providing for increased prevention and treatment funding, contacted the White House and the Office of the Pardon Attorney. On his last day in office, just hours before President Bush's inauguration, President Clinton commuted Cory's sentence.
I share this story because it illustrates the critical juncture at which we have arrived for drug policy in the United States. On the one side, it shows the foolishness of mandatory minimum and compulsory guideline sentencing and the wasteful, counterproductive focus on incarceration. But it also shows something else: a president and other political leaders realizing the failure and tragedy of our current system.
A March 2001 poll shows that more than 75% of Americans believe "we are losing the war on drugs" and that "the demand for drugs is so high it will be impossible to stop their use." The American public knows the drug war has been an abysmal failure—the numbers are just too convincing.
Our drug war has imposed tremendous costs on American society, with little or no positive effect. In 1999 alone, state, local, and federal governments spent $30 billion combating illegal drugs. This is twice the American cost of the Persian Gulf War. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world—one out of every 147 American citizens is now behind bars. In 1980, the number of Americans in prison for drug offenses was 41,000; today that number has increased tenfold, to 458,000. The annual cost of incarcerating drug offenders is $13.7 billion. When mandatory sentencing laws were passed in 1986, drug defendants comprised 38 % of the federal prison population; today they comprise almost 60%. The average sentence for a first time, non-violent drug offender is longer than the average sentence for rape, child molestation, bank robbery, or manslaughter.
So, with 458,000 drug offenders off the streets, one would think drug use would be declining. In fact, it is still on the rise. By the time they graduate from high school, half of American teenagers will have used illegal drugs.
Just as the huge number of drug offenders in prison has not reduced drug use, the billions of dollars we spend for foreign drug interdiction and source control efforts has not decreased the drug supply. It's this simple: If interdiction and source control were effective, we would have fewer drugs, at higher cost, on our nation's streets. Instead we have more drugs on the street, at lower cost, and with greater purity. Despite the huge portion of our population we have incarcerated, the demand for illegal drugs has not declined. The drug war, as we have known it for some thirty years, is, by every standard, an unmitigated failure.
These facts have not been lost on the American people. However, people are reluctant to abandon our current approach to drug policy until we can persuasively identify a proven alternative strategy. And far too many politicians simply don't have the will and the integrity to provide the honest, effective leadership to bring about policy changes that will reduce the harm to all concerned, including families and taxpayers.
Drugs are a huge problem for our country. A February 2001 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report demonstrates that substance abuse is the nation's number one health problem. And, the economic cost of substance abuse to the United States economy exceeds $414 billion each year.
Change is not likely until we have something concrete, proven, and powerful to replace the drug war. Our elected leaders will continue to pour billions into interdiction and source control efforts, and, for their own political gain, fuel the rage to punish our own citizens for non-violent, drug-related crimes. The political mileage gained from touting oneself as being tough on crime and a foot soldier in the war on drugs is too enticing for most politicians to resist. Thus, most of our elected leaders will remain reluctant to stray from the status quo until we can replace the current war on drugs with a new, more effective, politically safe agenda.
For the last few years, we have, in essence, been fighting a war against the war on drugs. One war is enough. The time has come to develop a replacement for the war on drugs. We must develop and implement a comprehensive program that will keep as its constant focus the reduction of harm caused to individuals and society by the use and abuse of drugs.
This objective—the reduction of harm caused to individuals and society by the use and abuse of drugs—must be the overriding criterion against which we measure success. Any program that is not furthering this objective should be discontinued or modified. The reduction of harm must be the ultimate goal, not simply the perpetuation of the programs themselves.
Our agenda must follow a three-step approach: Step 1: Articulate the agreed-upon common goal. Again, I submit the goal should be the reduction of harm caused by the abuse of drugs. Step 2: Figure out, through rigorous, unbiased research, what specific efforts will help us achieve that objective. And, Step 3: Implement those measures that further the goal; eliminate those that do not. This is an honest approach. How our nation has been pursuing the so-called war on drugs has been immensely dishonest. It has been a fraud. And millions of people, including taxpayers, have been the victims of this tragic fraud.
To a certain degree, we don't really know yet what works and what doesn't. The National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, recently reported that "the quality of data on what works to reduce the supply and demand for drugs is so poor that no accurate assessments can be made." That is an astounding finding after the many years and billions of dollars spent on the war on drugs.
Our first priority must be to fund the research necessary to evaluate every aspect of our approach to drug use. With the objective of reducing the harm inflicted on society and individuals by drug use, we must determine the effectiveness of a wide variety of approaches, from foreign interdiction to local demand reduction, from strict law enforcement and harsh sentencing to decriminalization. Somewhere amid this broad spectrum of approaches, we must identify those elements that are most effective in reducing harm.
Having done so, we can implement effective programs. We can, and should, insist upon good, unbiased evaluations of all programs before we rely upon them to reduce substance abuse.
In the past, after reading much of the research literature, I have touted Life Skills Training (LST) as being an effective drug-prevention program. LST trains youth in social resistance skills, personal self-management skills, and general social skills. For 20 years, many peer-reviewed articles have reflected the success of LST. However, all of the research has been conducted by the person who developed LST. LST has never been evaluated independently. The studies conducted by the program's creator indicate that LST can produce 59- 75-percent lower levels of tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana use. Before we latch onto that program as an element in our approach to drug prevention, we should await independent evaluations. I was pleased to read last evening in the May 24 issue of Rolling Stone that two independent studies of the efficacy of LST are now being conducted, with results expected this summer.
I am still left with the nagging question: With all of the billions of dollars spent on a failed interdiction and source-control policy, and hundreds of millions wasted on ineffective drug-prevention programs, why has our nation not devoted the necessary resources to appropriately evaluate drug-prevention programs used throughout the country in our public schools? Without good research, our children are simply guinea pigs in programs, the effectiveness of which is still a great mystery.
In Salt Lake City, I dumped the feel-good, but entirely ineffective, DARE program. When I made the decision to withdraw the support of our police officers from the program, parents and teachers complained bitterly that I was undermining a critical and worthwhile program. I was taunted on the street by emotional parents who claimed that DARE had saved their children's lives. Many seemed not to care whether or not DARE actually worked. They only cared that they could assert their opposition to drugs through their support of DARE.
Just a few months ago, DARE officials admitted that the program was failing, and announced a plan to rework the curriculum. That admission followed the publication of numerous peer-reviewed research studies demonstrating the dismal failure of DARE to make a positive difference in substance abuse. The U.S. Surgeon General and the National Academy of Sciences both panned the program this year. This could not have happened without the support of people who are willing to hold our programs accountable for the results they purport to produce, and take bold and sometimes unpopular steps to effect change.
Notwithstanding the positive aspects of the eventual exposure of DARE's ineffectiveness, one can only wonder why it took so long for DARE to be held accountable after many years of proven failure. Because DARE took the place of other programs that may be effective, DARE and its advocates actually have been part of the substance abuse problem, rather than part of the solution.
In addition to prevention education, we also know that constructive, non-punitive local harm reduction efforts work. In Salt Lake City, our police officers are receiving harm reduction training, to help them work with community members in need, and steer them away from the punitive philosophy that can be so damaging to our residents. We have also instituted a Johns program to reduce the demand for prostitution, and are working with prostitutes to educate them on how to protect themselves from the ravages of drug use and sexually transmitted diseases.
We can also craft and promote replacements for the current failure in our justice system. The hands of our judges are still tied by mandatory minimum or compulsory guideline sentencing requirements. Gone are the days when a federal judge could use his or her own discretion to assess the most appropriate punishment for an individual crime and an individual offender. Now punishments are legislated by vote-hungry politicians, who seek political gain by further inciting the rage to punish.
To replace mandatory minimums, we need to give judges a wide array of treatment programs and sentencing options from which to choose. This will provide for the more appropriate, compassionate, and effective administration of justice, and will allow us to begin treating drug addiction for what it really is—a health problem.
Finally, and more broadly, we know that the most effective approaches to our drug problems address drug use from the demand side. For 30 years, we have been trying to limit the supply of drugs in America, at a cost of many billions of dollars. An undercover DEA agent, who came face-to-face with la Mafia Cruzeña, the Bolivian cocaine cartel, reported the following: "I learned that not only did they not fear our war on drugs, they counted on it to increase the market price and weed out the smaller, inefficient drug dealers. They found U.S. interdiction efforts laughable. The only U.S. action they feared was an effective demand reduction program."
Let us shift our resources away from foreign interdiction efforts and toward programs at home that work, including treatment, harm reduction, and prevention programs that reduce this country's demand for drugs and reduce the harm they cause. With the necessary will, we can provide the funding necessary to identify the very best programs. Our new drug policy agenda must be based on objective evaluation and effectiveness.
This is a critical time. It is no longer sufficient to simply criticize the destructive, vengeful, and expensive policies of the past and present. Let us move forward with a bold agenda for creating truly effective drug policies and harm reduction programs. Our approach must force our nation's leaders to define and live by a clearly articulated goal. This means constantly reevaluating our programs, even those dear to our hearts and politically popular, to ensure that our money is being well spent. Our commitment to the objective may mean we have to make difficult decisions, but our citizens deserve nothing less.
Let us also commit to implementation of the programs supported by objective, peer-reviewed research. If truly effective, honestly evaluated programs could attain the following DARE has developed, we might see the demand for drugs in this country drop dramatically.
As we speak, hundreds of thousands of American citizens sit in federal prisons, wasting their lives behind bars because of non-violent drug offenses. Our judges are not allowed to judge, and are still bound by excessive sentencing guidelines that place the power of sentencing into the hands of prosecutors.
While hundreds of thousands of Americans waste their lives away in jails and prisons, a lucky few receive a second chance. Cory Stringfellow is on of the rare fortunates. In just a few short weeks, he will be a free man, with a new appreciation for his freedom. After receiving a pardon from President Clinton, Cory wrote: "I must now take it upon myself to prove to the public the error of determinate criminal sentencing schemes that pay no heed to the circumstances surrounding the crimes nor to the ambitious attempts of the incarcerated to rehabilitate and improve themselves. I am so grateful for the second chance that I have been given to fulfill my dreams. This act has saved my life."
Our war against the war on drugs has made tremendous progress. The American people now recognize the war on drugs is not working, but do not know with what we can replace it, so they advocate its continuation. We can seize this opportunity to provide a replacement. We can point our communities and the nation to the overriding objective: reducing the negative impacts of drugs on our society. We can research the best ways to achieve this objective, and implement only the most effective programs in our communities. We now have a tremendous opportunity.
Let us rise to the challenge and reduce the harm our current approach is causing to substance abusers, victims of crime related to substance abuse, families, our communities, and taxpayers. We know there is a better way. Let us pursue it together.