DEA Chief, Activists Clash Over Drug Policy

April 10, 2002, 10:04PM

Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle

Facing a deeply skeptical audience, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administrator Asa Hutchinson defended America's "war on drugs" Wednesday, saying prosecution and interdiction efforts had contributed to significant declines in drug use.

After Hutchinson's remarks at a Rice University drug conference, a succession of experts from health institutions, activist groups and even the criminal justice system disputed virtually everything he said.

U.S. drug laws and policies have sustained a vast criminal industry for decades, they said, filling prisons with nonviolent drug users, depriving countless black children of their jailed fathers, and intimidating doctors into not prescribing adequate medication for chronic pain.

The forum for the debate was a conference titled "Moving Beyond the War on Drugs," sponsored by Rice's James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy. The event continues today.

Hutchinson said drug policy reformers had perpetuated a myth that government efforts to curb drug abuse had failed to make progress. He said national household surveys showed that overall drug use has declined by half since its peak in the 1970s, although progress has stalled since the early 1990s.

"I believe it's the wrong conclusion to say that we have not made any progress and therefore should move in a totally different policy direction and legalize drugs," Hutchinson said. "Legalization would not diminish the profit motive of the traffickers, and it would not eliminate the need for law enforcement."

Kevin Zeese, the executive director of Common Sense for Drug Policy, said data from the annual household surveys was suspect because the surveys missed those most likely to have used drugs, such as prisoners and the homeless.

A better indicator, Zeese said, was reliable data showing sharp increases in overdose deaths and drug-related emergency room visits.

Zeese and other speakers called for policies focused on reducing the harm to society caused by drug abuse, rather than trying to eliminate it.

Maintenance programs in which heroin addicts are given heroin in a clinical setting have reduced drug-related crime in Switzerland, Zeese said, and needle exchange programs in U.S. cities help prevent the spread of AIDS and other infectious diseases.

Yet instead of encouraging programs like these, he said, current policies tend to support initiatives that do more harm than good.

For example, when schools deny students who test positive for drugs the opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities, they deprive them of alternatives to drugs, he said.

"The drug war is doing more harm than good when it comes to our kids," he said.

James Gray, a California judge and former prosecutor, said open discussions of U.S. drug policy are inhibited by a "code of silence" that makes criticism of a law enforcement-based drug strategy seem treasonous.

Gray said results of the "war on drugs" have been so abysmal that "victory today is defined as slowing down the pace of defeat."

He said that four times more people in California are imprisoned for long terms for marijuana offenses than for robbery, rape and murder combined.

Drug suppliers and traffickers, he said, inevitably find a way to meet demand. Drug eradication and interdiction efforts simply shift the source from one place to another.

"Our policy of drug prohibition is harming our children," Gray said, creating a thriving underground market that is turning young people into drug entrepreneurs.

Travis County District Attorney Ronald Earle said current policies had "created strains on both the law and on democracy."

Earle said he had developed a system in Austin known as "restorative justice," in which community members participate in the criminal justice system. The principles of this system, he said, could be applied to a drug policy with good results.

Deborah Small, the public policy director of the Drug Policy Foundation, a New York-based reform group, cited evidence of racial discrimination in drug enforcement. She recounted the 1999 undercover investigation in the Texas Panhandle town of Tulia that led to the arrests of 46 people, 40 of whom were black.

One conviction in the Tulia case was recently overturned, and the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the way the cases were handled.

Stratton Hill, a professor emeritus in the Department of Pain and Symptom Management at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, said many patients suffer unnecessarily because of the law enforcement's control of opium-based pain-relief drugs.

"The depth of misinformation that's out there is mind boggling," he said.

William Martin, a Rice professor and conference moderator, acknowledged that Hutchinson was the only speaker Wednesday who supported the current approach to drug enforcement.

Martin said other top drug agency officials had been invited but were unable to attend. Mayor Lee Brown, who served as National Drug Control Policy director in the Clinton administration, is scheduled to speak today, he said.

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