1,000 likes and nearly 500 comments on my CNN.com post asking President Obama to fix our federal drug policy. Check it out…
To Mayor Rawlings and City Council:
Thank you for the opportunity to speak on the subject: Misdemeanor Marijuana Arrests in the City of Dallas
In 2007 the Texas legislature passed a law allowing for ticketing rather than arresting individuals found to be in possession of small amounts of marijuana.
That same year there were 4,400 such arrests in Dallas County (Stats unavailable for City of Dallas).
When it comes to drug related offenses, we believe it’s important to make a distinction between those behaviors that we don’t like or that may offend our sensibilities, and those behaviors that actually pose a threat to public safety.
I have never used an illegal substance and we certainly don’t advocate illegal drug use.
Clearly, individuals arrested under these circumstances pose no threat to public safety, as they are typically released within hours of their arrest.
What could ending misdemeanor marijuana arrests mean for the city of Dallas?
First of all, according to the Texas DPS, in 2010 the Dallas Police Department had a clearance rate of: 66% rate for murder; 57% for rape; 18% for robbery; 7% for auto theft; and 5% for burglary.
By making more resources available to fight these violent crimes, we can improve public safety.
Secondly, for the sake of example, If we assume:
- 80% of the 4,400 Dallas County arrests occurred in the City of Dallas; and
- A single arrest costs the city only $1,000 (nationally the range estimated to be $1,500 – $2,000)
Then it’s conceivable that in one year the city of Dallas could save as much as $3.5MM and $14MM in four years.
Since marijuana arrests statewide have increased by 43% from 2007 – 2010, it’s likely that the savings could be substantially higher.
Finally, we could reduce the tremendous human costs including an arrests record that last virtually forever, loss of employment, and so on.
I urge the Council to take a closer look the benefits to the City of ticketing rather than arresting individuals for small amounts of marijuana. As we see it, this is a tremendous opportunity to be SMART ON CRIME!
Today marks the 12th annual International Overdose Awareness Day.
Although medical experts recognize addiction as a chronic disease, the nagging misconception that it’s a moral failure contributes to the stigma and shame associated with it. Criminalizing people with addiction can make the pursuit of a productive life an impossible dream.
The continued allegiance to erroneous beliefs supports a drug war mentality, which stands in sharp contrast to harm reduction. We need to focus on public health strategies aimed at providing addicted persons with life-saving services until they are able to avail themselves to treatment.
Thanks to the efforts of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), the scales are beginning to tip in favor of compassion and reason. The bipartisan Stop Overdose Stat Act was recently introduced in Congress to help prevent overdose fatalities by supporting community-based prevention programs. A number of states have recently passed ‘911 Good Samaritan’ laws, which are designed to encourage people to call 911 to report an overdose as quickly as possible. And with the DPA’s support, Moms United to End the War on Drugs has launched a national campaign to end the stigmatization and criminalization of people who use drugs.
The national crisis of overdose from opiate prescription pills has spawned welcome, if surprising, new allies in law enforcement. The Rensselaer County’s Sheriff’s Office, a small department in New York State, is one of a handful of agencies around the country willing to think outside the box to save lives. According to the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC), Rensselaer County trains police deputies in the use of Narcan (naloxone), an opiate reversal drug that can be administered to revive a person who has overdosed.
For many years, state law only allowed Advanced Life Support certified Emergency Medical Technicians to administer Narcan. Three years ago, Sheriff Jack Mahar and Dr. Michael Daly, medical director of the Rensselaer EMT program, were successful in changing this policy.
Opiate pills had become such a problem that deputies were carrying Narcan for their dogs in case one of them accidentally ingested the drugs. “We wanted to use Narcan on people, too,” said Sheriff Mahar in an interview with the NCHRC.
If other Narcan programs around the country are any indication, the Rensselaer County sheriff deputies are poised to become community heroes. In 2008, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania reported a 96 percent reversal rate when naloxone was administered in 249 overdoes episodes over a three-year period.
The price of naloxone has increased significantly, making it very difficult–and in some cases, impossible–for programs across the country to purchase and distribute it. This year during International Overdose Awareness Day, the DPA is raising awareness about shortages.
Events surrounding the shortage of a different drug in New Mexico have left advocates shaking their heads. On July 26, 2012 National Public Radio ran a piece about Suboxone, a prescription drug that helps wean people off of heroine and other opiates. Because New Mexicans who need the drug are finding it so difficult to get a prescription, they’re turning to the local drug dealer to fill the void.
Dr. Miriam Komaromy, director of a state-funded addiction treatment hospital in New Mexico, told NPR, “People who are treated with Suboxone are able to go back to school, they’re able to go back to work, they’re able to start paying taxes and taking care of their children. It’s making them able to return to being a functioning member of society.”
What could possibly account for the scarcity of a drug as beneficial to addicted persons as Suboxone?
Seth Williams, a nurse practitioner who treats the homeless in Albuquerque, says, “A lot of physicians are very resistant to prescribing Suboxone because they fear it will attract opiate addicts to their practices which bring with it a whole can of worms in terms of managing those clients.”
The irony of this situation could render one speechless.
If advocates have their way, drug policies will shift from a criminal justice to a public health issue in every state. Someday it will be considered barbaric to lock up someone suffering from addiction. While there can be no illusions about the amount of resources and work required to make this vision a reality, raising public awareness on International Overdose Awareness Day is an important step in the right direction.
Joy Strickland is founder and CEO of Mothers Against Teen Violence in Dallas, Texas, author of Joy in the Morning – A Mother’s Journey from Tragedy to Triumph, and an OpEd Project Public Voices fellow at Texas Woman’s University.
My piece below was published on Al Jazeera English on July 24, 2012
On June 19,1993, my 19-year-old son was killed with a friend in a random act of gun violence. Chris and his friend were brutally slain by two juveniles who were under the influence of illegal drugs and looking for someone to carjack.
As a survivor, I am intimately familiar with the overwhelming awareness of sudden and traumatic loss, which has descended like a dark cloud over Aurora, Colorado. In the coming weeks, the town will receive all the attention a nation can muster. But eventually the spotlight will dim and the long and difficult work of healing their lives and mending their community must begin.
Ironically, the largest mass shooting in American history occurred in a city named by Forbes Magazine in 2011 as the nation’s ninth safest place to live.
Whenever a mass shooting occurs, the issue of gun control is awakened like a sleeping giant. But if past is prologue, nothing will change following the theatre massacre in Colorado, which took the lives of 12 and injured 58.
In the coming days and weeks, the media will direct a predictable procession of pundits with the aim of illuminating the tragedy.
Gun policy advocates, lawmakers, and psychiatrists will be in demand for a while. And contributions to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence will rise.
Poignant images on television and computer screens will fill countless news cycles. Criminologists will comment on the profile and mental state of the shooter, and soon his name will be etched forever on the wall of infamy.
President Obama traveled to Aurora on Sunday just as President Clinton went to Columbine and President George W. Bush visited Virginia Tech following the massacre on that campus. The President visited privately with the wounded and surviving family members before making public remarks.
He began by quoting Revelation 21:4: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”
He continued with words of compassion and encouragement, saying of the victims and their families, “I come to them not so much as a president, but as a father and a husband.”
Although the President did not mention gun control, Press Secretary Jay Carney said in a media briefing during the visit, “The president’s view is that we can take steps to keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have them under existing law,” he added later. “And that’s his focus right now.”
According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, there have been 60 mass shootings in the United States since the January 8, 2011 massacre in Tucson, Arizona.
Not one piece of legislation has passed in the wake of those shootings. In fact, earlier this year the National Rifle Association, attempted to weaken already permissive gun laws in Colorado, by backing a bill that would have eliminated the state’s background check system. The bill passed the Republican-controlled House, but stalled in the Senate, controlled by Democrats.
The NRA opposes sensible gun laws: criminal background checks, waiting periods, and bans on assault weapons are an abomination in their eyes. In 2010 the NRA’s clout was bolstered when the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that the second amendment provides individuals with a fundamental right to bear arms that cannot be abridged by federal or state governments.
The NRA reports annual revenues exceeding $250 million. They are masters at cashing in on fear and intolerance under the guise of protecting the right to bear arms. And their influence over gun policy is peerless.
They say guns don’t kill people; people kill people. But there can be no doubt that guns make killing throngs of people relatively easy.
The NRA also claims that the President wants to take away your guns. That couldn’t be further from the truth. In January 2010, the Brady Campaign gave President Obama a failing grade on guns laws. According to the report card, “President Obama signed legislation letting people carry concealed weapons in national parks and in checked luggage on Amtrak trains, adopted the gun lobby’s empty rhetoric about just “enforcing the laws on the books,” muzzled Cabinet members who expressed any support for stronger gun laws and failed to appoint permanent leadership at the agency that polices the gun industry. This White House even voiced no objection to people carrying guns near Presidential events.”
Of course, no amount of legislation can prevent gun violence. With cash and the right connections, guns, like drugs, are readily available in most communities. Personal responsibility has an important role to play. Gratuitous violence in the media should not be ignored. If mental health services were as accessible as firearms, then we could all breathe easier.
Despite these challenges, there is a strong case to be made for reasonable gun laws. It is unfortunate that the NRA’s stranglehold on federal and state lawmakers prevents the conversation from taking place. Fear of being targeted by the NRA has silenced too many politicians who know in their hearts that gun control is a better way.
Although my prayers remain with the people of Aurora, I have come to understand that mass shootings are the ultimate and inevitable consequence of surrendering gun policy to the gun lobby. We need to stand up and declare that the end result is too high a price to pay. But for now, the awakened giant need only bide his time until he can close his eyes again in unconscious repose until the next massacre.
Published July 18, 2012 with the title, “Ignoring the Real Issues Behind Fast and Furious”:
Operation Fast and Furious is living up to its moniker. Trapped for many months below the radar screen, the story recently found a safe perch above the noise as it grew into a full blown scandal. Characterized as a gunrunning operation run amuck, Fast and Furious has led to the removal of the acting director of the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives; repeated congressional hearings; President Obama’s first assertion of executive privilege to protect documents subpoenaed by congressional investigators; and most recently to the Republican-led House voting to find the attorney general in contempt of congress—a first for a sitting cabinet member.
Fast and Furious was run out of ATF’s Phoenix office. The objective was to follow the firearms into the hands of the Sinaloa cartel and unravel their gunrunning network. An editorial published July 11, 2011 in the Los Angeles Times described the program as follows:
“As part of Fast and Furious, ATF agents allowed straw purchases, in which a person buys guns on behalf of someone else who cannot legally buy them. The idea was to allow the purchases to go through in order to trace where the guns ended up, but agents appear to have lost track of a significant number of the weapons. Nearly 200 of the guns were used in crimes in Mexico, officials have determined, and two weapons were found in December at the scene of a U.S. Border Patrol agent’s killing.”
This is one of many examples illustrating the typical way the story has been reported, leaving one with the impression that straw purchases and gun trafficking were somehow unique to Fast and Furious.
But the state of Arizona places no limit on the number guns that can be bought or resold, as long as the purchaser is 18 or older and has no criminal record. No permits or waiting periods are required. Phoenix is home to over 850 federally licensed firearms dealers.
Arizona’s permissive gun laws allowed gun trafficking long before Fast and Furious, and this activity will continue unabated into the foreseeable future. What Operation Fast and Furious added to the equation was the certainty—rather than the high probability—that weapons obtained by straw purchases would be resold to criminals.
It was the tragic death of Customs and Border Protection Agent Brian Terry that ended Fast and Furious and sparked the congressional investigation. In the highly partisan climate inside the Beltway, each side accuses the other of political theatre as the stakes continue to rise.
But there are sobering realities that could easily be lost in the hyperbole of scandal.
Ending Fast and Furious could do little to improve the safety of anyone: Mexicans, Arizonians, or border patrol agents. When state laws sanction gun trafficking and there are no federal laws prohibiting it, who can feign shock when weapons are used in criminal activity?
Even if the Sinaloa cartel could have been successfully decapitated, the results would simply have been more violence.
An estimated 50,000 Mexicans have been killed since 2006. To be sure, President Felipe Calderon’s frontal assault on the cartels sparked the violence precipitating in the deaths. But there can be no doubt that we are morally culpable, as narcotraffickers use any means necessary to meet America’s insatiable appetite for illegal drugs.
The proper context for Fast and Furious is the war on drugs. Drug trafficking is accurately defined as a problem of supply and demand.
During a trip to Mexico on March 25, 2009, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said, “We know very well that the drug traffickers are motivated by the demand for illegal drugs in the United States and that they are armed by the transport of weapons from the United States.”
On May 13, 2010, U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske told the AP that the drug war hasn’t worked. “In the grand scheme of things, it has not been successful.”
Although our government seems content to muddle around in the fog of the drug war, the apparent truth in these statements shines through. Fast and Furious is another painful example of the giant chasm between the correct statement of the problem and the strategies employed to solve the problem.
When will our government begin to employ strategies that have a real and lasting impact on the supply or demand for illegal drugs?
Locking up people (whether they are illegal firearms traffickers, drug users, low level drug traffickers, or kingpins) will have no sustainable impact on the drug war.
Meanwhile the long arm of the pro-gun lobby assures that the river of firearms continues to flow into Mexico at the rate of 2,000 each day. And a story that could have sparked a sober conversation in America about our drug policy has been reframed to be a scandal about allowing guns to “walk”.
At its heart, the war on drugs is a war on economically challenged communities of color. All races use illegal drugs at similar rates. But according to Jack Cole, retired State Police Lieutenant and founding member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, in 2008 black men were arrested at a rate seven times the rate black South African men were arrested at the height of Apartheid. Children forced to make their way in the world alone because parents are locked up for nonviolent drug-related crimes are among the most regrettable victims of our nation’s drug policy.
Among the privileged, problematic drug use is treated as a health issue. The time has come to extend a public health approach to drug abuse and addiction to all our residents. Treatment on demand, syringe exchange, decriminalization, and legal regulation are harm reduction strategies that work and must be on the table.
Whatever happens in the showdown between the President and congress, one thing is for certain: drug-related crimes and tragedies will continue until lawmakers settle on proven solutions that have a lasting impact on the supply and the demand for drugs. Nothing else will work.
Colleges Must Offer Abusers Compassion
[An edited version of the op-ed below appeared in the Dallas Morning News on February 22, 2012]
A six-month long investigation of illegal drug trafficking involving TCU students ended last week with 22 arrests. Similar incidents connected to the school in years past went virtually unnoticed. But this time, the small private university quickly found itself in the national spotlight, apparently because four players on TCU’s undefeated, Rose Bowl winning football team could be counted among the 15 students ensnared.
Speculation abounds concerning the potential impact the arrests may have on the image of the school and its highly regarded football team.
It should be said that the behaviors of a very small percentage of the student body should not define the school. Considering the prevalence of drugs, one wonders whether any campus, community, or profession could withstand the hot light of such close scrutiny and emerge unscathed.
On the positive side, the arrests may chip away at the spectacular myth that white students must drive to the seamy side of town to buy their drugs from thuggish black or brown drug dealers. Although this stereotype is regularly reinforced by the media, the truth is that all races use illegal drugs at similar rates. In fact, young white males are somewhat more likely to sell and use drugs than their counterparts. The TCU students rounded up last week, like most other illegal drug users, bought their drugs from people in their community.
Though not surprising, it should be cause for alarm that the drug buys included prescription pain killers (opiates). Not only is this category of drugs extremely addictive, but when combined with alcohol they are also deadlier than any street drug. Opiates account for the fastest growing category of drug addiction in America. According to the American Society of Interventional Pain Physicians, about 120,000 Americans annually end up in the emergency room after overdosing on opiod pain killers, which also account for 13,800 of the 26,000 overdose deaths recorded annually, surpassing heroin and cocaine.
Drug trafficking on or off a college campus is correctly defined as a problem of supply and demand. Zero tolerance policies of the sort in place at TCU, are punitive in nature. They may offer instant gratification to the parent within us, but in the end, whether applied to drug users or low-level dealers, such policies are patently ineffective at reducing the demand for drugs.
Harm reduction strategies are far more effective. The term refers to reality-based, public health strategies aimed at reducing the harms caused by drug use and the harms caused by drug prohibition. Harm reduction values science, compassion and equity.
An example of this approach on a college campus could assure that policies afford sufferers of addiction the same care, concern, and privacy as students suffering from other diseases; or replacing zero tolerance with a progressive sanctions model wherein drug users and low-level dealers could be placed on probation and counseled for a first offense, and expelled only as a last resort.
Soon the spotlight will grow dim and business as usual will return to the campus. But for the students involved, academic standings and athletic careers have been dealt a blow that may prove insurmountable. The expulsions and prosecutions come at a time when college tuition is more costly than ever, and education remains the greatest single predictor of earnings and success in life. Perhaps all involved could have been better served by policies that are less punitive and more compassionate.
As you may know, the 82nd Texas Legislature is underway in Austin. MATV’s four-pronged legislative agenda starts with a proposal for a Good Samaritan Law.
According to the Drug Policy Alliance, between 1999 and 2007, overdose deaths in Texas increased by more than 250 percent. In fact, drug overdose is the third-leading cause of injury related death in Texas, behind car crashes and suicide. Almost one-third of the victims were either teens or young adults (ages 15-34). Our proposal would allow overdose victims or individuals witnessing an overdose to call 911 without the fear of being prosecuted for drug possession.
The passage of a Good Sam law costs nothing– and in fact, could save money through the reduced need for incarceration and criminal justice costs.
New Mexico and Washington have already enacted Good Sam laws. Similar life-saving legislation is pending in several states across the country, including California, Massachusetts, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.
Supporting a Good Sam Law is consistent with our belief that we must have a “public health” approach to drug abuse and addiction based on scientific
research, emphasizing harm reduction and saving lives over punishment.
Make it your business to learn about this proposal and how it could save lives in Texas. Contact us or attend our monthly Drug Policy Discussion Group.
There is absolutely nothing like a vacation to relax, clear your head, “re-create” and regenerate the spirit. I had a wonderful vacation in Hawaii—a place of spectacular beauty and wonderful people—with 18 members of my family. I recommend it highly…
And because of my vacation, I missed the July DRUG POLICY DISCUSSION GROUP. But Iave it on good authority that our speaker, Jimmy Ochs—Program Director at the Dallas County Judicial Treatment Center located in Wilmer, Texas—gave an excellent presentation, and that a “lively” discussion followed. Kudos to our speaker and Dr. Marvin Dulaney for making it happen! Mark your calendar for our next meeting Thursday, August 19. Details will follow.
Two days after returning from Hawaii, I spoke at the UT Southwestern Medical Center, sharing the stage with Raul Caetano, M.D., M.P.H., Ph.D., Dean, UT School of Public Health, Dallas Regional Campus. The program was hosted by John Z. Sadler, M.D., Daniel W. Foster School of Medical Ethics and Chief of the Division of Ethics and Health Policy in the Department of Clinical Sciences. I want to thank the students and faculty for a warm reception; welcome our first Project RETHINK Network members from UT Southwestern; and thank my good friend John Fullinwider for the invitation.
You probably know by now President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act into law yesterday, reducing the mandatory minimum sentence for a federal conviction of crack cocaine possession from 100 to 18 times that of people convicted of carrying the drug in powdered form .
Despite the fact that more than 66% of those who use crack cocaine are White, in 2006, 82% of those convicted and sentenced under federal crack cocaine laws were African American. When you add in Latinos, the percentage climbs above 96%. Astonishing.
The NAACP worked very hard in support of the new law and views its passage as a huge success. We congratulate them on their work because we understand that the entrenched support for the drug war assures that even a small advance will be highly contested and difficult to win. Still, it must be said that it is disappointing that the disparity was not removed entirely, as there is no justification for anything less than equity in this instance. Secondly, if policymakers believe that crack cocaine is somehow instantaneously addictive, then how can they justify locking up anyone in the throes of addiction (a medical problem) instead of sending such a person to treatment, which is far less costly, more effective and more humane? And finally—since drug trafficking can be correctly described as a problem of supply and demand—where is the evidence that locking up nonviolent drug users has any sustainable impact on the supply or demand for drugs? These are critical questions that speak to the heart of what is not only wrong, but unconscionable about our drug policy.
Have you read Joy in the Morning? A friend from my church asked me to sign a copy of her book today. And like so many others, her first comment was, “I couldn’t put it down!” She continued, “Your book was such a blessing to me. Thank you so much for writing it.”
Joy Strickland, CEO, Mothers Against Teen Violence
I want to begin with a big HOWDY to the Texas A&M University students whom I met recently during the Student Conference on Latino Affairs. It was a real pleasure to attend their conference and share our work with them. And I want to welcome them to the Project RETHINK Network.
I have just finished reading Dr. Gabor Mate’s bestselling book entitled In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts – Close Encounters with Addiction. There is so much excellent information in this book, especially for someone (like me) who has no first-hand experience or understanding of addiction. It would be interesting to know how much Texas legislators—the people responsible for making laws that directly impact addicted citizens’ lives—actually understand about the causes of addition and how familiar they are with the most recent research…But I digress…
As we continue to RETHINK drug policy, we understand that harm reduction – an approach that reduces the harm caused by addiction—is an important consideration in the context of public health policy.
As Dr. Mate suggests, syringe exchange programs (SEPs) are an important harm reduction strategy. SEPs ensure that injection drug users who cannot or will not stop injection drugs have access to sterile syringes and proved a means to safely dispose of used syringes. In addiction, SEPs often provide a range of preventive health services, referrals to substance abuse treatment, and mental health services.
Studies show that SEPs do not encourage drug abuse and that drug users will use sterile syringes if they can obtain them. Seven major government-funded reports agree that drug use does not increase with access to sterile syringes.
The National Institutes of Health indicates that an impressive body of research has shown a reduction in risk behavior as high as 80%, with estimates of a 30% or greater reduction of HIV as a result of needle exchange programs.
Finally, these programs are cost-effective. At 97 cents per syringe, the cost to prevent a case of HIV has been calculated at $4,000 to $12,000, compared to $190,000 to treat a person infected with HIV.
Considering the benefits, the question becomes: Why is Texas the only state in America without a syringe exchange program?
In the aftermath of a frontal assault on Mexico’s Drug Cartels by President Calderon, Mexico is now stuck in an a violent, but predictable war with the cartels. Far from being weakened by the assault, the powerful cartels are now using their wealth and power to expand into Central America. How many innocent people need to die before we admit that law enforcement is not the answer to the drug war?