The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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February 21, 2013

My View: New approach needed on illegal drugs


With respect to marijuana, legalizing and taxing it, as Colorado and Washington recently decided, would help pay for treatment and reduce the crime associated with drug trafficking by driving gangsters out of a decriminalized marijuana market, just as the Mafia was largely driven out the alcohol market after the end of prohibition.

Moreover, legalizing marijuana would reduce the blatant racial discrimination in drug law enforcement, described in the Chicago Reader. It found that 89 percent of people found guilty of low-level marijuana offenses in Chicago between 2009 and 2010 were black, 9 percent were Hispanic and only 2 percent were white — even though more whites smoke marijuana.

Nationwide, blacks make up 12.1 percent of the population but they comprise 34 percent of all drug violation arrestees, leaving many with felony drug convictions that cripple their employment prospects for life.

As for “hard” drugs, in 2001 Portugal decriminalized the purchase, possession and use of all previously illegal substances, including heroin, opium and cocaine. Instead, health workers provide medical advice, methadone, and clean needles. The addicts are treated as patients rather than criminals. Since 2001, addiction has decreased by 50 percent and drug-related HIV cases have decreased by 75 percent, according to the AP.

For alcohol abusers, an innovative program started by Larry Long, a district court judge in South Dakota, called 24/7 Sobriety, requires people who commit alcohol-related crimes to show up twice a day, every day, for a breathalyzer test as a condition for staying out of jail. If they fail to appear, or fail the test, they immediately go to jail for a day.

Seven years’ experience demonstrates that people show up sober more than 99 percent of the time. According to the state attorney general's office, the program has made a big dent in rearrests for DUI.

Another approach, by Philip Cook of Duke University, suggests that tripling the alcohol tax — from about 10 cents to about 30 cents per drink — would prevent at least 1,000 homicides and 2,000 motor-vehicle fatalities a year.

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