These Are Your Letters on Drugs

Noti, Ore.
Thanks for devoting a special issue to the "war on drugs" [Dec. 27], a maladaptive, bigoted, dishonest and unjust policy that has been running for decades. When alcohol-consuming legislators decide their substance is the one acceptable choice, and they seek to punish all for the problems of a few, we have a hypocritical policy. Silence implies consent for its dishonesty, injustice and prejudice and the persecution of the people imprisoned because of it. Speaking out for drug policy justice shows real courage.


Alexandria, Va.

Tracy Velázquez, in "The Verdict on Drug Courts," acknowledges that drug courts save lives but feels the money could be better spent on other community programs. Science says otherwise. Two decades of rigorous research—including a nationwide study sponsored by the National Institute of Justice, hundreds of evaluations and five meta-analyses (advanced statistical procedures)—prove beyond a reasonable doubt that drug courts outperform all other programs for addicted offenders. For every $1 invested in drug courts, taxpayers reap at least $2 to $3 in net economic benefits, often considerably more.

It is naïve to expect the same results without the backing of a judge. Outside the courts, 25 percent of addicted offenders never enroll in treatment and another 50 percent drop out. Less than 5 percent achieve long-term sobriety. Drug courts double, triple and even quadruple the odds of success.

Requiring a guilty plea is one critical ingredient. People who have hurt themselves and others are given a choice: go to trial or go to treatment. If they choose treatment, the guilty plea provides just the right leverage to keep them coming back when the cravings, withdrawal symptoms and drug-using lifestyle beckon. And after they have succeeded in treatment, the guilty plea and its consequences are withdrawn.

Drug courts draw on and expand the resources in their communities. No services are usurped and no one is arrested who would not otherwise have been arrested if the drug court never existed. Let’s face it, substance abuse treatment professionals have little public recognition and almost no political influence. But in partnership with the courts, they can effect real change. Decades of political anomie are fading away as these professionals are making a real difference that can be felt at the societal level. Why would Velázquez want to turn back the clock?

National Association of Drug Court Professionals

Velázquez Replies

Washington, D.C.

Doug Marlowe’s comments miss my point: drug courts are an expensive attempt to use the justice system to fix a public health problem. He tries to address their expense by restating that they have greater benefits than costs, but the reality is that treatment in the community produces $18 in benefits for every dollar spent, clearly an exponentially greater benefit. Perhaps if the public were more aware of this value, treatment providers wouldn’t, as Marlowe suggests, need the justice system to validate their worth!

And recent experiences in places like Denver counter Marlowe’s assertion that drug courts don’t cause more arrests. A judge there reported that the number of criminal drug filings increased three times in the two years following the implementation of the drug court, while the number of drug admissions to prison doubled. With corrections costs already straining state budgets, we just can’t afford to continue dealing with addiction as a crime.

Threatening people with legal sanctions and coercing them to engage in treatment would not be OK for any other public health issue, even those, like obesity, with social costs rivaling or surpassing illegal drug use. And it’s not the way people with means generally get to handle their own or a family member’s addiction. "Old school" is to think the justice system can solve our social problems; let’s move to a paradigm where our resources are focused where they do the most good, namely on front-end social investments that improve the well-being of people and their communities.

TRACY VELÁZQUEZ, executive director
Justice Policy Institute


More of Our Readers on Drugs…

Brooklyn, N.Y.

In "Obama’s Drug War" Michelle Alexander unfortunately ignores important antiracist, budget-based antiprison organizing. As the prison system has metastasized, spending on cages and cops has drained funds from education, housing, health and other programs. The burden of such cuts falls on poor people of color—the same people being rounded up to fill America’s new prisons. Antiprison activists are making common cause with advocates for public schools, health and housing programs, aiming to shrink the prison system and channel funding spent on prisons toward programs that meet the needs of our most vulnerable residents.

We’re not worried that the race card
will be played. It is played daily in courts, police stations and prisons. Our protection against the next "Willie Horton" ad will come from work that insists that public safety is a matter of more preschools, not more cops; of more health clinics, not more prisons. Such antiracist, budget-based, antiprison organizing provides fertile ground where a large-scale movement to transform the New Jim Crow state can grow.

California Prison Moratorium Project


 Fort Bragg, Calif.

Living happily in the pot culture here in the Emerald Triangle of cannabis cultivation, I was interested in Sasha Abramsky’s "Altered State." I voted against Prop 19—pot’s virtually legal here as it is. I agree that the local economy would be decimated if Big Tobacco moved in, and I, too, have heard that it is already acquiring land.

My greatest concern is for the health of this planet, related to the GMO revolution. The reason Big Tobacco and the medical-industrial complex are so threatened by cannabis is that anyone can throw a few seeds in his backyard and have enough supply for a year. The craze over the miraculous healing from cannabis oil is all over the Internet and is fueling the AMA and Big Pharma to gain control over another inalienable right—to grow our own God-given herb for personal health and well-being. GE companies like Monsanto are already on their way to holding the patents on all plants in our food chain, and this would be another coup for control of our choice in safe health remedies. Just one dusting of "terminator pollen" would wipe out any independent outdoor grower. I am not naïve; we’re heading toward legalization. But I would send an urgent message to start growing seed crops indoors. And let’s all keep fighting hard against genetic pollution.



Lakeside, Calif.

Altered states, pleasure, pain management and the pursuit of meaning have always been central to the richness of life. The list of these pursuits dwarfs our Calvinist preoccupation with drugs: sexual intimacy; religious mysticism; danger and violence; entertainment and sports; the arts and intellectual pursuits; lifelong hobbies ["Rebalancing Drug Policy"].

All drug use, including drinking and smoking, certainly needs to be approached with care. But as we rationally require drivers, pilots and gun owners to have training and licenses, we could choose to distribute drugs (including alcohol and tobacco) in a rational manner.

Prescribing specialists would provide access and science-based information on safe use, health consequences and treatment. As with tobacco, costs would be kept high enough to minimize harmful use and low enough to suppress criminal enterprises. Manufacture and distribution would be provided by contractors, free of promotion by corporations and street dealers. Economic and social costs would be much lower than incarceration and current public health outcomes; drug-related crime and violence would be largely eliminated.

Drug use will not go away; Prohibition taught us that. We have eaten fruit from the tree of knowledge, and more than ever we understand the biochemistry of our pleasures. Rational solutions are abundant. We need the political will to choose sensible policies.