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PRESIDENT'S PAGE COLUMN FOR Febuary, 2001, King County BAR BULLETIN

DRUGS (Part 4)

REAL SOLUTIONS OR BAND-AIDS?

When I stepped on this column's soap box a few months ago, many people thanked me for asking questions about the effectiveness of the war on drugs. But they all cautioned not to expect any quick fix. Savvy observers of our state legislature and veterans of previous efforts to develop a rational societal response to drug addiction all said that the 2001 legislature won't touch the issue.

Since then, some remarkable things have been happening. My previous columns challenged lawyers and judges to get involved. I was delighted that several hundred, including dozens of judges, prosecuting attorneys, and law enforcement officers, have stepped forward. The feedback has been so strong and so uniform that I began wondering if there is anyone who thinks the present laws are working. The closest I've come to identifying such a person may be a Seattle attorney (who will remain anonymous) who sent me an email stating "[c]hanging law may not be the most appropriate response to the problem. The laws may be fine. Based on my own research, it appears that diet could be the reason for some of the problems."

Is the "Hundreth Monkey Phenomenon" at work?

The so-called "hundredth monkey phenomenon" refers to a sudden, spontaneous, and mysterious leap of consciousness achieved when an allegedly "critical mass" in public attitudes and behavior is reached. What has been happening in King County is not happening in a vacuum. In the past month alone, the spectrum of new voices for change has run from departing President Bill Clinton, calling for decriminalization of marijuana possession and reconsideration of mandatory federal sentencing, to New York's Republican Governor George Pataki, calling for substantial reductions of sentences for new drug law offenders and similar reductions of the sentences of those currently incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses. Even departing White House Drug Czar, General Barry MaCaffrey, has been decrying the phrase "war on drugs" and urging recognition of the fact that drug addiction is a medical problem for which we need better prevention strategies and treatment for those who become addicted. In popular culture, Steven Soderbergh's movie "Traffic", where Michael Douglas plays the U.S. Drug Czar, has already been named the New York Film Critics' Best Picture of the Year.

The legislature may be listening

Many who at first advised us to work toward new proposals for the 2002 legislature now tell us that senators and representatives on both sides of the aisle in the 2001 legislature are considering ameliorative legislation. Most legislators seem keenly aware that California voters overwhelmingly supported Proposition 36, a statewide initiative that prescribes treatment rather than jail or prison time for a defendant's first two nonviolent drug-possession convictions. Sadly, popular initiatives in our state have made it more difficult for our legislature to find money for the kind of drug treatment programs most legislators know we need. To head off a Proposition 36 type initiative, several Washington legislators have begun preparing legislation along similar lines. To his great credit, King County Prosecuting Attorney Norm Maleng has also been working to build a consensus among prosecutors and law enforcement officials across the state to support reduction in mandatory sentences, expansion of drug courts, and especially to provide effective treatment programs for those found to have drug dependence. I am told that the Sentencing Guidelines Commission is also gearing up to comment on possible ameliorative legislation, even though its mandate was not to report until next December, 2001.

Smart on Crime is not Soft on Crime

Those seeking real solutions have usually been written off as "soft on crime." For the first time, we see political leaders who are willing to risk that label. New Mexico's governor, Gary Johnson, was the first. Minnesota's governor, Jesse Ventura, followed. Now Governor Pataki in New York. John Dunne, one of the architects of New York's "tough" drug laws, a former assistant attorney general under President George Bush, has led the Campaign for Effective Criminal Justice to modify the very legislation he helped to secure. Although he thinks Governor Pataki's proposed changes are still too punitive, he comments that "The important thing...is that the governor stood up and said, "Come, follow me. This is not soft on crime, this is smart on crime.'"

Our goals and organizational structure

Our goal from the beginning has been to look for the best long term approach to reducing the negative impact on society of substance abuse. Organizing and directing the KCBA effort is our Drug Law Study/Action Group Steering Committee, composed of KCBA Executive Director Alice Paine, First Vice President Ralph Maimon, Second Vice President Caroline Davis, former KCBA presidents Steve De Forest, Peter Greenfield, Mary Alice Theiler, and Dan Gottlieb, the former Executive Director of the Washington State Sentencing Guidelines Commission, Roger Goodman, WSBA Governor Ken Davidson, who attends as the WSBA's liaison, and myself.

Coming soon: short term palliatives

While seeking to make informed choices about long-term options, we are also working to identify short-term actions that would lessen the devastation to individuals and families, and the cost to the taxpayers, of lengthy jail or prison terms. To that end, former KCBA president Dan Gottlieb dan@goandfish.com is chairing a "Short Term Options Group", working with our Criminal Law Section and Legislation Committee, to promote and respond to any legislation advanced in the current session of the legislature.

Needed: Realistic Long Term Solutions

To identify the best long term options, the Steering Committee has created three task forces:

  1. The Task Force on Effective Drug Abuse Prevention, chaired by former KCBA President Steve De Forest sdeforest@riddellwilliams.com, will gather, evaluate and summarize available information about why people abuse drugs and what strategies from Washington, other states, and other countries seem to work best to discourage non-medical drug abuse.
  2. The Task Force on Effective Drug Addiction Treatment, chaired by former KCBA President Peter Greenfield peter.greenfield@columbialegal.org, will gather, evaluate and summarize available information about the most effective strategies from Washington, other states, and other countries in treating drug addiction and the costs and difficulties of such strategies.
  3. The Task Force on Use of Criminal Sanctions, chaired by former KCBA President Mary Alice Theiler tddmmat@aol.com, will gather, evaluate and summarize available information about the effectiveness and cost of attempting to discourage non-medical drug use through imposition of criminal sanctions.

    Based on the findings of our task force reports, we will be open to "thinking outside the box" about what we would do if we could devise a system to reduce the harmful consequences of drug use and addiction, based on solid facts about prevention and treatment and the experience of the war on drugs on the limits of of the criminal sanction.

    It's still not too late to get involved!

    If you would like to play a part in the search for better ways to deal with an old challenge, you are invited to join this effort. Send an email to the KCBA's Executive Director, Alice Paine AliceP@kcba.org, or me fredn@mhb.com a call and we'll put you on the list of interested participants. If you would like to participate on one of the task forces, you can volunteer directly by contacting the chair of any or all at the email addresses set out above. Please start by looking at some of the resources listed on our new KCBA web site (www.KCBA.org) under "Drug Law Task Force".

    P.S. Last month I quoted Albert Einstein's definition of insanity: “Continuing to do the same things and expecting different results”. My thanks to a reader who sent me another Einstein quote about our national experiment with criminalization of manufacture, possession, and use of alcohol: In his 1921 writing entitled "My First Impression of the U.S.A.", Einstein wrote "The prestige of government has undoubtedly been lowered considerably by the prohibition law. For nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced. It is an open secret that the dangerous increase of crime in this country is closely connected with this."

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