In spring, I spoke with a friend, Garnett Watson, who had been a police officer for nearly 30 years, much of that time fighting the drug war in northwest Indiana. This summer, I met with Michel Sucher, M.D., who runs a state-supported program for addicted professionals in Arizona, where, like California, a treatment-first model for some drug offenses has been adopted.
Both men are principled drug warriors, but with vastly different strategies.
Garnett had just taken the unenviable civilian job of overseeing police, fire and ambulance services for the city of Gary, Ind. Few cities have been bloodied more in the drug war than Gary.
I asked Garnett how Gary's war on drugs was going. He confessed that illicit drugs today are stronger, cheaper and more plentiful than when he first pinned on a badge in 1971. And so goes the nation. After spending hundreds of billions of dollars for decades on cops, courts and prisons, America today is farther from winning the drug war than when we started.
So I asked Garnett, given the apparent failure, if he now favors legalization.
No, he said, adding that he'd never seen a legalization plan he could support.
Just like 1973 in Vietnam, today most of us know we've lost the war with drugs. We just haven't settled yet on a politically acceptable plan for peace. There is little doubt, however, that physicians will play a key role.
To get a glimpse of that future peace, we need to look backward. A good place to start is a book by Mike Gray called Drug Crazy. It explains how we got into this mess, starting with the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914. The act required physicians who prescribe narcotic drugs to be federally licensed and regulated by the Treasury Department. The act also limited physicians to prescribing narcotics for use "in the course of professional practice only."
The Treasury Department interpreted this phrase in a way to stop doctors from prescribing drugs for their addicted patients. After a few show trials of noncomplying physicians, doctors fell in line. Thus, the medical model for dealing with the drug problem died, the law of supply and demand kicked in, and the economic underpinnings of our current illicit drug trade fell into place.
According to Gray, an overzealous physician, Hamilton Wright, was the architect of our old anti-drug policy. Hopefully, it will be doctors like Sucher who will lead us to a new and better future. Sucher is a source in reporter Elizabeth Thompson Beckley's story this month on the business of treating drug dependents as patients on a path parallel to, if not completely independent of, the criminal justice system.
In our conversation, Sucher told me that running an anti-drug policy on twin tracks--medical and criminal--is the course we're most apt to follow. That's progress.
The Oklahoman newspaper recently reported as many as 1,300 Oklahoma physicians--about one in five--are abusing drugs or alcohol. An Oklahoma recovery program has helped 800 impaired physicians and boasts an 85% success rate. In my mind, that's a better solution than locking them up.