Monday, December 8, 2008

Drug Czar Controversy - Tierney Lab @ NY Times mentions Andrew Tatarsky's sign-on letter

December 8, 2008, 12:23 pm
By John Tierney
NY Times

Some researchers in substance-abuse treatment and advocates for the medical use of marijuana marijuana are alarmed at reports that Representative Jim Ramstad, a Republican from Minnesota, is a candidate to become the next drug czar — the director of the office of National Drug Control Policy. In a joint letter to President-elect Barack Obama, coordinated by Andrew Tatarsky, the past president of the division of addictions of the New York State Psychological Association, dozens of academics and other professionals in substance-abuse treatment write:
This country needs a drug czar who supports evidence-based policies and one
who will make decisions based on science, not politics or ideology. We strongly
believe that Congressman Ramstad is not that person.

Rep. Ramstad voted in 1998 in favor of making permanent the federal funding
ban on syringe exchange. In 2000, he voted to prohibit the District of Columbia
from spending its own locally-raised funds on syringe exchange programs, and in
2007, he voted against lifting the same DC ban, despite decades of research
showing that syringe exchange programs reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, save
lives, save money, and do not increase drug use. Representative Ramstad has also
consistently opposed congressional efforts to stop the arrest of patients with
HIV/AIDS, cancer, and other illnesses who use medical marijuana to ease their
pain and suffering in states where it is legal.

Similar concerns have been raised in another joint letter, coordinated by the Drug Policy Alliance endorsed by more than three dozen other public-health, criminal-justice and drug-treatment organizations. They write to Mr. Obama:

You showed strong leadership on the campaign trail by pledging to lift the federal funding ban on syringe exchange programs, end the excessive federal law enforcement raids aimed at medical marijuana patients, and eliminate the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity. . . We urge you to nominate for drug czar someone with a public health background, who is committed to reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C and other infectious diseases, open to systematic drug policy reform, and able to show strong leadership on the issues you believe in.

The costs of the war on drugs are summed up by Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed article celebrating the 75th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition. After noting that that the repeal was popular not just among drinkers but also non-drinkers worried about the rise in organized crime and other consequences of Prohibition, Mr. Nadelmann writes:

They saw what most Americans still fail to see today: That a failed drug prohibition can cause greater harm than the drug it was intended to banish.

Consider the consequences of drug prohibition today: 500,000 people incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails for nonviolent drug-law violations; 1.8 million drug arrests last year; tens of billions of taxpayer dollars expended annually to fund a drug war that 76% of Americans say has failed; millions now marked for life as former drug felons; many thousands dying each year from drug overdoses that have more to do with prohibitionist policies than the drugs themselves, and tens of thousands more needlessly infected with AIDS and Hepatitis C because those same policies undermine and block responsible public-health policies.

And look abroad. At Afghanistan, where a third or more of the national economy is both beneficiary and victim of the failed global drug prohibition regime. At Mexico, which makes Chicago under Al Capone look like a day in the park. And elsewhere in Latin America, where prohibition-related crime, violence and corruption undermine civil authority and public safety, and mindless drug eradication campaigns wreak environmental havoc.

The joint letter to Mr. Obama organized by Dr. Tatarsky suggests a different approach: “We need a new bottom line for U.S. drug policy so that treatment is more available and addiction is treated like a health issue, not a criminal issue. To paraphrase former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, we need a surgeon general, not a military general or police officer.”

What do you think of Mr. Ramstad as drug czar? Do you have any other nominees for the job? Or other advice for Mr. Obama on drug policy?

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