Proponents of the War on Drugs often claim that it's about keeping communities safe. But US drug laws are based less on public health and more on social control, according to Diane Goldstein—Chair of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP).
"I think what's critically important is that most Americans recognize that, inherently, our drug laws have never been about public health," Goldstein told Civilized. "It was about othering people. Our early drug laws were based on racism and social control of people that look different than a lot of Americans. And it continues to be that way."
That's why Goldstein and LEAP are working hard to rectify the inequalities and damages that have been caused by the decades-long War on Drugs. Having started her law enforcement career in California during the mid-80s, Goldstein has seen both the detrimental impact that US drug laws have had on vulnerable people as well as the resistance to drug reform in both California and the rest of the country more broadly.
"If we look critically at the history of our drug laws, we would recognize that we have done damage to the United States through drug prohibition. You see what Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is doing right now, he's pushing back and threatening to go after cities that open safe consumption spaces. And that's exactly what they did when California did Prop 215 [the ballot initiative that legalized medical marijuana in California]. I think that the federal government is afraid of losing power. They know they have lost the war on marijuana, and now it's the last gasp of drug prohibition. They are going to try to deter further reform by using the overreach and the power of the federal government.
"But they're going to lose because people are no longer afraid of challenging and pushing back on the federal government."
Why do you think changing America's drug policies is important?
I think we know—after 40 plus years of a modern day drug war—that criminalization neither deters people from using drugs nor prevents drugs from coming into our country. In fact it makes it worse. Drug prohibition is no different than alcohol prohibition back in the 1920s and 30s. The only thing that happened is it created power vacuums that give power to either the crooks or the cops. And everyone in between lost. Drug prohibition - just like alcohol prohibition - has brought death, disease, violence and addiction. But at least we learned our lessons with alcohol prohibition and ended it after 13 years.
What do you think needs to be done?
At its most basic level we need to redefine what public safety entails and making it into community health and safety.
We know that the war on marijuana has taken tons of physical resources away from law enforcement, relative to what our job should be—which is violent crimes and criminals. There was recently an article that showed the enforcement of drug laws, and marijuana laws in particular, is correlated with a decrease in police efficiency in the investigation of other crimes. So we developed public health strategies where consumption at a minimum is decriminalized like Portugal did, where there are no criminal penalties if people are suffering from chronic substance abuse. We want to provide evidence-based treatment programs and have safe consumption sites implement medication-assisted treatment programs like Switzerland very successfully did. They saw a notable drop in criminal activity by people who were once addicted to heroin.
What are the benefits of treating this as a public health issue and not as a law enforcement issue?
Cost effectiveness. We're not ruining people's lives. Up until recently if you were convicted of a marijuana offense, even though there are still certain marijuana convictions that have collateral consequences, you would lose your Federal Student Loan. That's still true for other illicit drugs. You can lose professional licenses [e.g. for practicing law or medicine]. There are, I think, in California alone something like over a thousand collateral consequences for felonies for criminal conviction. We don't in the United States allows people to rehabilitate themselves because we put up so many barriers to reentry back in society because of things like collateral consequences of conviction, or stigmatizing people for being criminal offenders.
Can you tell me about your own experiences with substance abuse?
I had a brother who died from an overdose. He started smoking, drinking and then started using illicit drugs as a way to manage his clinical depression and his bipolar symptoms. He was finally diagnosed as an adult and went through some criminalization early on in his life, then got his life together for 20-plus years. Then he lost his job, lost access to health insurance, lost access to psychotropic medication and therapy and he went back to self-medicating himself. Then he got roped right back into the criminal justice system. He was punished for suffering from a public issue.
And it's not just my brother. There are hundreds of thousands of millions of people dating back to the inception of this modern-day drug war whose lives have been ruined because we see drug use as a moral issue in our countries and not as a public health issue. That is not the goal of law enforcement. Our job is not to ruin people's lives forever. Yes we hold people accountable for committing crimes, but we should be there to help people back into society, not to ostracize.
Tell us a bit more about your work with LEAP.
At LEAP I'm currently the chair, so I work on strategy on how to change the nature of policing in particular. That's one of our big focuses. The drug war has ruined our relationship with our constituents who we're supposed to be serving. Instead, what we've done is run roughshod over our communities using a one tool solution of criminalization versus implementing public health strategies.
In places where community-police relationships have severely deteriorated, is it possible to to repair those relationships?
I think the successful implementation of harm reduction strategies where we recognize and start working with community members to prioritize what policing should be doing—that's a big part of the push. I mean we are working on solutions by trying to bring civil asset forfeiture reform. We're working on solutions but trying to emphasize the implementation of a myriad of harm reduction strategies.
We support safe-injection or safe-consumption spaces, syringe-exchange programs, the training of not just law enforcement but community members in the use of naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal drug. We work on Good Samaritan laws and we talk about the importance of redefining who's responsible for public safety. Right now, law enforcement is responsible for public safety and I think largely that's because we, as community members, have handed our control over to them. But we need to start investing in programs that work more efficiently, more effectively to prevent crime and reduce crime rather than just locking people up. We support mental health programs, drug treatment on demand, after-school programs. We recognize that the emphasis on the criminal justice system has sucked money away from community resources that are vital and critical to community health and safety.
Can you explain the philosophy of harm reduction, what that is?
Harm reduction as it relates to the drug war—and it can be used in a variety of different ways—is the implementation of public health policy that meets drug users at their level but mitigates the harm of drug use both on the drug user and the community at large. Harm reduction recognizes that we're never going to have a drug-free society, so how do we reduce overdoses? We reduce overdoses through education, through drug testing, through medically supervised safe consumption sites, through needle exchange programs. Through not criminalizing people who are using drugs illicitly and ensuring that someone calls an ambulance to save someone's life and that we don't prosecute those people for the death of someone that uses drugs with them. Harm reduction mitigates the damage of illicit drug use on both the drug users and community.
Can you point to any states or cities that have particularly strong harm reduction strategies that people could refer to as a good example of what that looks like when it's working properly?
Safe consumption sites have not been allowed in the United States, but it looks like in California, Governor Brown (D) signed a bill that may allow San Francisco to open one. Syringe exchange programs across the nation have been the most widely studied harm reduction strategy and finally the federal government allowed federal money to be used for this, so those are around the country.
There are law enforcement assisted diversion programs that started in Seattle—that is a pre-booking diversion program that recognizes that people who are suffering from chronic substance abuse really need help, not handcuffs. The use and the distribution of naloxone across the country both to law enforcement and to grassroots activists in California also helps. I believe now that you can get naloxone over the counter, as we recognize that everyone should have it.
I know here in Canada the federal government only recently started implementing safe consumption sites after some significant roadblocks.
You have Insite, and I know that that's been controversial. But I just read an article, I think literally today, that in Toronto you were supposed to open up two more safe consumption sites and the government kind of stopped it, because they want to do more studies on it. I have a Master's in criminology and I did a lot of research on safe consumption sites and Insite has a real, proven track record as a successful harm reduction program. I spoke to the Vancouver law enforcement commander that was responsible for it and he's like, 'yeah, it works.'
Law enforcement has an obligation. Part of the law enforcement issue and part of the law enforcement problem throughout my career is that we stigmatize drug users. We use horrible language and we continue to use horrible language around the use of naloxone. I hear police officers who basically say, 'let people die, we're not going to use naloxone to save Johnny.' That's problematic—the primary responsibilities of law enforcement is to save people's lives. All lives. We have to start recognizing and having more clarity around this issue
The Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) is a non-profit organization that brings together people in various law enforcement roles to advocate for public safety solutions, including better drug laws, in the United States. Civilized has teamed up with LEAP to profile their members and push the message of drug reform forward.