Experts: Drug-Free U.S. Isn't Likely

April 12, 2002, 11:43AM

'Harm reduction' endorsed by panel

Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle

Although marijuana is legal and widely available in the Netherlands, use of the drug there is about half as common as in the United States, a leading Dutch drug expert said Thursday.

Peter Cohen, director of the Center for Drug Research at the University of Amsterdam, said the relatively low level of marijuana use in his country is one of many facts suggesting that enforcement policies have little impact on drug use.

"The variables that determine drug use are more complicated than availability," Cohen told participants in a drug policy conference sponsored by Rice University's James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.

On the conference's closing day, Cohen and other speakers continued to argue that the goal of a "drug-free America" is unachievable.

Laws and drug policy should focus instead on reducing the "death, disease, crime and suffering" caused by drug abuse and drug control strategies, said Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based reform group.

The Netherlands decriminalized the personal use and small sales of marijuana some 30 years ago, the first European nation to do so. The drug is now widely available in cafes throughout the country.

Cohen said a 1997 survey showed that 16 percent of Dutch citizens reported having ever used marijuana, compared to about 32 percent in the United States. The figures were derived from surveys using similar methodology, Cohen said.

In Switzerland over the past 20 years, the public has come to realize that "the idea of achieving a drug-free society was illusory, and they opted for a pragmatic approach," said Francois van der Linde, president of the Swiss Commission on Narcotic Drugs.

One program that reflects this approach, he said, administers heroin to addicts in medically supervised settings. The program is intended for chronic users who have been unsuccessful in programs using heroin substitutes such as methadone.

Experts from Australia and Canada said most funding for drug programs in their countries is devoted to reducing supply. But both nations have embraced "harm reduction" strategies shunned in the United States because of fears they suggest condoning drug use, the speakers said.

Australian programs to provide sterile needles and syringes to addicts has helped limit the spread of HIV, said Alex Wodak, director of the alcohol and drug service at St. Vincent's Hospital in Sydney.

Although legal in some areas of the United States, needle exchange programs are illegal in Texas. The prevalence of AIDS in the United States is six times greater than in Australia, Wodak said.

Other speakers noted that the impact of U.S. drug enforcement efforts affects other countries.

In Bolivia, Peru and Colombia, the use of herbicides to destroy coca fields is ruining other crops and damaging the environment, two experts said.

"The United States has imposed militarized anti-drug strategies in Latin America, often strengthening abusive security forces," said Gina Amatangelo, a former fellow for International Drug Control Policy on Latin America.

These military units, enlisted by the United States to secure drug-producing areas before planes fly in with herbicides, often remain in place and terrorize the population after the drug war has moved on, Amatangelo said.

Houston Mayor Lee Brown, who headed the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy during the Clinton administration, agreed that interdiction and eradication efforts "are not going to stop the production of drugs."

The focus of U.S. policy, Brown said, should be on education, prevention and treatment. But most money still goes to law enforcement, he said, because "those who make the decisions (in Congress) do not want to be seen back home as being soft on drugs."

"It's easy to vote for money for interdiction," Brown said, "but interdiction does not work. It's like finding a pebble on the beach."

William Martin, a Rice professor who was instrumental in organizing the conference, said the institute would compile the information presented there into a set of policy recommendations for consideration by the administration and Congress.

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