I got a unique opportunity to speak to the Milwaukee Community Justice Council’s Committee of the Whole Meeting this morning.
Back in October I got a chance to pitch my idea for a new County led Task Force to address the Criminal Justice side of the War on Drugs to Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele and he told me where to go: the Community Justice Council (CJC)
I began attending as many of CJC subcommittee meetings (Reentry, Huber, Data, Executive) as possible. There are a lot of very serious and caring people working hard, and volunteering in many cases, to make the criminal justice system less harsh, more humane.
Although many of those involved readily acknowledge the ineffectiveness of the War on Drugs and the harms caused by the criminalization of the possession and consumption of certain arbitrarily banned substances, they aren’t ready to focus on this area of the problem.
In November I got the chance to discuss this with Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judges Maxine White and Derek C. Mosley. I explained that the premise of the War on Drugs i.e., that the State has the “right” to control what people inoffensively possess and consume, is a violation of the inherent and fundamental human rights God blesses all of us with: the ability to choose right from wrong and be the masters of our own bodies. I asked whether this was a legitimate use of the State’s monopoly on the use of Force.
I got the chance to ask Judge Carl Ashley the same thing at the meeting this morning. They don’t refute my arguments, rather they instruct me to go and get the laws changed. Judge Ashley’s response was very similar to that of Judge White and Judge Mosely: “I’ll defer to my colleagues in the legislature to act upon the vote of the people. My position is the law is what it is and that’s what we have to deal with… I don’t make the law, my job is to follow it.” They are telling me to go tell their masters to stop making them do wrong. They know enforcing drug laws is wrong in principle and wrong by the Laws of Nature. They are seriously and faithfully allegiant to a system they know is wrong and they justify it by saying, if they weren’t doing the job, someone else — who quite likely would not be as kind and gentle as they are — would.
“Please, tell my master to stop making me do wrong!” “I was just doing my job!”
The people have never had a chance to vote on whether or not they wanted to give up the right to be the masters of their own bodies to the State. The law is not some arbitrary thing determined by the will and force of one or a multitude. A majority of people cannot legitimately decide to strip the Natural Rights of the minority whether by voting or enacting “laws”. Natural Laws are permanent, immutable, applicable everywhere in all circumstances at all times. If law is merely the whim of the legislature, then it is no law, and if it conflicts with our Natural Rights, we are under no obligation to obey it.
The majority of the people present at the meeting of the whole today are deeply invested in the current battle lines of the War on Drugs. They have built careers in its many nooks and crannies: Police, Sheriff, District Attorney, Public Defender, Case Manager, Therapists, Parole/Probation Officer, Policy Analysts, Program Directors etc... I am hoping to get them to see that the War on Drugs is wrong in principle and wrong on the evidence. It will require a paradigm shift to address the root cause of the mass incarceration we are facing and to acknowledge that, as Lysander Spooner said: “Vices are not Crimes”.
We didn’t get into this mess overnight, it has been developing and festering for three generations now.
There is a “way out” that is not merely hypothetical or theoretical, it has been demonstrated in Portugal, where they that opted, in 2001, to decriminalize possession of all drugs.The U.S. Needs to Decriminalize Drug Possession Now, By Ethan Nadelmann Drug, Policy Alliance (excerpts from article)
According to the FBI’s latest Uniform Crime Report, released last month, law enforcement agencies in the U.S. made 1.63 million arrests for drug law violations in 2017, an increase of almost 4% over 2016. Over 1.4 million of those arrests — 85% of the total — were simply for drug possession.Portugal’s radical drugs policy is working. Why hasn’t the world copied it? By Susana Ferreira (excerpts from article)
As a result of these arrests, Human Rights Watch and the ACLU estimated in a report two years ago, “on any given day at least 137,000 men and women are behind bars in the United States for drug possession, some 48,000 of them in state prisons and 89,000 in jails, most of the latter in pretrial detention. Each day, tens of thousands more are convicted, cycle through jails and prisons, and spend extended periods on probation and parole, often burdened with crippling debt from court-imposed fines and fees. Their criminal records lock them out of jobs, housing, education, welfare assistance, voting, and much more, and subject them to discrimination and stigma. The cost to them and to their families and communities, as well as to the taxpayer, is devastating. Those impacted are disproportionately communities of color and the poor.”
Imagine what would happen if drug possession were no longer treated as a crime. People would still be arrested for committing crimes under the influence of drugs, including driving, but police would no longer spend millions of hours, and billions of taxpayer dollars, arresting people in possession of small amounts of drugs for their own use. The 4.5 million people under parole and probation in the country would no longer need to be at risk of losing their freedom simply for failing a drug test. The stigma of problematic drug use would likely persist but not all the devastating consequences of a criminal conviction.
Portugal is increasingly well known as the country that opted, in 2001, to decriminalize possession of all drugs. The Portuguese didn’t fully legalize possession but they did make a commitment not to put anyone in jail simply for possessing a drug. Non-problematic consumers are asked if they need help with other aspects of their lives, and basically told to stay out of trouble. Those with real problems, typically involving not just drugs but also physical and mental health, are encouraged in all sorts of ways to get help. And Portuguese police reasonably assume that drug users who commit other sorts of crimes will eventually get caught and punished for those offenses.
The evidence from Portugal is conclusive. According to João Castel-Branco Goulão, director of Portugal’s drug program since its inception, “there was an average of one overdose death a day in Portugal before drugs were decriminalized, and there were 27 in all of 2016. In 1999, there were 1,793 new cases of HIV among drug users reported in Portugal. In 2016, there were 30. In 1999, 9,991 people sought treatment for drugs for the first time. In 2016, that number had dropped to 2,090. [And …] the total number of people in the country using any illicit drug has dropped from 100,000 to 40,000, and three-fourths of those are connected to treatment.”
Much the same is true of the experience in Switzerland, Germany, The Netherlands, Denmark and Canada with prescribing pharmaceutical heroin and hydromorphone (a.k.a. Dilaudid) to people who have been addicted to street heroin. Drug-related crime and arrests drop, as do overdoses and drug-related diseases, public safety and health improve, and taxpayers save money. Norway and Great Britain may soon follow suit.
There are, to be sure, exceptions. The top prosecutors in two Washington State counties — Snohomish and King — have announced that they will no longer file charges in drug possession cases involving less than 2–3 grams of any substance. In the Suffolk County, Massachusetts, race for district attorney, Rachael Rollins campaigned on a platform of not bringing charges against people for various minor crimes including drug possession and even possession with intent-to-distribute. Police departments in San Francisco and a few other cities in California are issuing citations instead of arresting people for simple possession. And a growing number of law enforcement leaders, including Baltimore State Attorney Marilyn Mosby, balk at endorsing decriminalization but support Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) programs that aim to divert drug possession offenders before they are even booked.
It’s not just the political weakness of those who favor drug treatment over incarceration but the persistent belief among many treatment supporters, and the public, that the only acceptable alternative to drug use, whether problematic or not, is abstinence — and that the criminal justice system is an essential partner in forcing people to abstain.
In 2001, nearly two decades into Pereira’s accidental specialisation in addiction, Portugal became the first country to decriminalise the possession and consumption of all illicit substances. Rather than being arrested, those caught with a personal supply might be given a warning, a small fine, or told to appear before a local commission – a doctor, a lawyer and a social worker – about treatment, harm reduction, and the support services that were available to them.
The opioid crisis soon stabilised, and the ensuing years saw dramatic drops in problematic drug use, HIV and hepatitis infection rates, overdose deaths, drug-related crime and incarceration rates. HIV infection plummeted from an all-time high in 2000 of 104.2 new cases per million to 4.2 cases per million in 2015. The data behind these changes has been studied and cited as evidence by harm-reduction movements around the globe. It’s misleading, however, to credit these positive results entirely to a change in law.
Portugal’s remarkable recovery, and the fact that it has held steady through several changes in government – including conservative leaders who would have preferred to return to the US-style war on drugs – could not have happened without an enormous cultural shift, and a change in how the country viewed drugs, addiction – and itself. In many ways, the law was merely a reflection of transformations that were already happening in clinics, in pharmacies and around kitchen tables across the country. The official policy of decriminalisation made it far easier for a broad range of services (health, psychiatry, employment, housing etc) that had been struggling to pool their resources and expertise, to work together more effectively to serve their communities.
A flurry of expensive private clinics and free, faith-based facilities emerged, promising detoxes and miracle cures, but the first public drug-treatment centre run by the Ministry of Health – the Centro das Taipas in Lisbon – did not begin operating until 1987. Strapped for resources in Olhão, Pereira sent a few patients for treatment, although he did not agree with the abstinence-based approach used at Taipas. “First you take away the drug, and then, with psychotherapy, you plug up the crack,” said Pereira. There was no scientific evidence to show that this would work – and it didn’t.
Portugal’s policy rests on three pillars: one, that there’s no such thing as a soft or hard drug, only healthy and unhealthy relationships with drugs; two, that an individual’s unhealthy relationship with drugs often conceals frayed relationships with loved ones, with the world around them, and with themselves; and three, that the eradication of all drugs is an impossible goal.
“Our objective is not to steer people to treatment – they have to want it,” he told me. But even when they do want to stop using, he continued, having support workers accompany them to appointments and treatment facilities can feel like a burden on the user – and if the treatment doesn’t go well, there is the risk that that person will feel too ashamed to return to the drop-in centre. “Then we lose them, and that’s not what we want to do,” João said. “I want them to come back when they relapse.” Failure was part of the treatment process, he told me. And he would know.
In the foggy northern city of Porto, peer support workers from Caso – an association run by and for drug users and former users, the only one of its kind in Portugal – meet every week at a noisy cafe. They come here every Tuesday morning to down espressos, fresh pastries and toasted sandwiches, and to talk out the challenges, debate drug policy (which, a decade and a half after the law came into effect, was still confusing for many) and argue, with the warm rowdiness that is characteristic of people in the northern region. When I asked them what they thought of Portugal’s move to treat drug users as sick people in need of help, rather than as criminals, they scoffed. “Sick? We don’t say ‘sick’ up here. We’re not sick.”
I was told this again and again in the north: thinking of drug addiction simply in terms of health and disease was too reductive. Some people are able to use drugs for years without any major disruption to their personal or professional relationships. It only became a problem, they told me, when it became a problem.
I was told more than once that if drugs were legalised, not just decriminalised, then these substances would be held to the same rigorous quality and safety standards as food, drink and medication.
When Pereira first opened the CAT in Olhão, he faced vociferous opposition from residents; they worried that with more drogados would come more crime. But the opposite happened. Months later, one neighbour came to ask Pereira’s forgiveness. She hadn’t realised it at the time, but there had been three drug dealers on her street; when their local clientele stopped buying, they packed up and left.
“Those of us from the Algarve always had a bit of a different attitude from our colleagues up north,” Pereira told me. “I don’t treat patients. They treat themselves. My function is to help them to make the changes they need to make.”
And thank goodness there is only one change to make, he deadpanned as we pulled into the centre’s parking lot: “You need to change almost everything.” He cackled at his own joke and stepped out of his car.
“You know those lines on a running track?” Pereira asked me. He believed that everyone – however imperfect – was capable of finding their own way, given the right support. “Our love is like those lines.”
He was firm, he said, but never punished or judged his patients for their relapses or failures. Patients were free to leave at any time, and they were welcome to return if they needed, even if it was more than a dozen times.
He offered no magic wand or one-size-fits-all solution, just this daily search for balance: getting up, having breakfast, making art, taking meds, doing exercise, going to work, going to school, going into the world, going forward. Being alive, he said to me more than once, can be very complicated.
“My darling,” he told me, “it’s like I always say: I may be a doctor, but nobody’s perfect.”