Doctors, lawyers and pharmacists joined yesterday in calling for an end to the state's war on drugs, saying people should no longer be jailed for simple possession of drugs.
Releasing a one-year study on illegal drug use, the leaders of five major professional organizations said imprisoning drug users is the most costly and least effective approach to ending drug abuse.
"We need to shift from a punitive legal model to a public health model," said Fred Noland, the Seattle attorney who was the driving force behind the policy review.
Noland is a past president of the King County Bar Association, which conducted the study and won support for it from the Washington State Bar Association, the Washington State Medical Association, the King County Medical Society and the Washington State Pharmacy Association.
King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng disagreed, saying the report offers no alternative to imprisonment of offenders.
"The report ultimately concludes that we should eliminate criminal sanctions for drug users, abusers, manufacturers and traffickers, but it offers no other alternative," Maleng said in a Nov. 5 letter to the state bar.
But Noland and others emphasized that the report does not call for decriminalizing drugs entirely.
The report says simple possession should not result in jail, but does not say it should be legal either. Nor does it say what kind of sanctions should be imposed. Options mentioned include court-required treatment, fines or contempt citations.
A state bar association resolution calls for retaining criminal sanctions for conduct that puts others at risk, such as violent behavior, driving under the influence or providing mind-altering drugs to minors. The report says the punitive approach toward drug use -- which costs $25,000 a year per inmate -- hasn't worked.
While the state has pursued its punitive approach, drug use has increased, the state's courts are clogged to the breaking point and its prisons are overflowing with people who have done nothing other than possess drugs, said Ken Davidson, a governor of the state bar association.
Every dollar spent on treatment is more effective than $7 spent on the legal approach, Noland said.
The report says the emphasis should change to treatment, and it calls for a debate on the specifics.
Calling for change is the first step needed to "turn the battleship around," said Mary Alice Theiler, chairwoman of the section dealing with criminal sanctions.
"We don't pretend to have all the answers," said Noland, adding, "We're all very aware this is a very difficult political subject."
The report said Washington's sentences for possession and sale of drugs are more severe than in many other states. And its punishments for small sales to support addictions are longer than for assault and robbery.
"We can no longer afford to do this," said the state bar's Davidson, calling yesterday's convergence of professional organizations "an historic event."
Jerry Sheehan, lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, hailed the coalition.
"We think it's a tremendous step forward to have these very conservative organizations saying, in their sometimes elliptical way, the same things we've been saying for years," he said.
Sheehan said his organization supports the new approach not just to save money but also on principle.
"Putting adults in prison because of what choices they make about their body is simply wrong," he said.
But Maleng said doing away with criminal sanctions for drug use could result in more drug abuse. The report overlooked people who might have been deterred by the threat of jail time from abusing drugs, he said.
Drug courts, which offer offenders the chance to avoid jail if they follow a strict treatment program, have been successful precisely because of the threat of jail, he said.
Noland said, "There's a counter-argument that treatment that's provided voluntarily is much more effective than treatment a drug court imposes." He said kicking addiction is difficult, and it doesn't make sense to jail someone who has relapsed.
Sheehan and Noland pointed to initiatives passed in California and Arizona in recent years that ended jail for most possession cases.
Arizona spent $1 million in 1999 on treatment and supervision of 390 inmates kept out of prison under its new law. Imprisonment of those inmates would have cost $7.7 million, a study by Arizona's court administrator's office found.
Bills are expected to be introduced in the Legislature in January to reduce sentences for drug possession and possibly also small sales. Sheehan said methamphetamines -- the current focus of public attention, as crack cocaine and heroin once were -- is likely not to be included in the reductions. The savings from not jailing offenders would be sent to local communities to use on drug treatment programs.
"We're going to support anybody who proposes to drastically reduce or eliminate altogether jail sentences for simple drug possession," said Noland.
Among conclusions of the report:
Prevention programs in schools are largely ineffective, especially the DARE program.
Though drug use should be strongly discouraged, most teenagers cannot be stopped from experimenting. But only a small percentage develop addiction problems.
Prevention programs should be focused on high-risk youths and should address underlying social and psychological factors.
Drug prevention programs must include alcohol and tobacco. Alcohol use among teens is much more widespread than cocaine or heroin.
Drug addiction treatment should be available on request to every Washington resident, though those who could afford it should pay. Relapse is common, so re-entry should be allowed. Currently, treatment is available to only about 20 percent who want or need it.
Drug treatment and methadone programs should also be made available to prison inmates.
Needle exchange programs should be available statewide.
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