People With Drug Problems Need Help, Not Long Jail Sentences

Al Heystek

Without a doubt, it is extremely disturbing that the former head of Calvin College’s criminal justice program now faces charges of possession with intent to deliver cocaine, as reported by The Press on June 29. The college and the Grand Rapids community where he has laudably served feel stunned and hurt as he is being accused of the very thing he stood against. Whoever is without sin cast the first stone.

What is at least as disturbing to me as the charges themselves is the fact that a conviction results in a minimum of 1 year and a maximum of 20 years in prison.

It is disturbing because long-term incarcerations are a by-product of the war on drugs, a war that we have been waging intensely through the 80’s and 90’s. Long-term incarceration does nothing really to address our pervasive drug problem.

Three decades after President Nixon declared “war” on drugs, they are more readily available, at greater purity and at lower prices than ever before.

Incarcerating persons who possess and/or sell illegal drugs may make many of us feel better, but nearly tripling the prison population, as we did in the 80’s has resulted in our prisons being overrun with non-violent drug offenders. And for every person who is incarcerated for selling (often supporting their own addiction), there are others willing to take their place on the streets. Meanwhile, there are millions of addicts and alcoholics who cannot get treatment on request.

The movie “Traffic” makes the point that addressing demand—not supply—is the appropriate response to the drug problem. Solutions are in drug addiction treatment and prevention, not heavy policing and law enforcement.

There is a philosophy in Europe called “harm reduction”. It recognizes the reality that drugs are here to stay and it focuses on reducing harm, not eliminating the problem.

“War” conveys something to be won and it utilizes aggressive and punitive tactics. “Harm reduction” recognizes the huge financial and human waste in attacking the supply side of the problem and in building more and more prisons.

The United States has taken more of a harm-reduction approach with nicotine. We know prohibition won’t work; it didn’t work with alcohol.

Overall rates of smoking in this country fell from 42 percent in 1965 to approximately 25 percent in 1990 and have remained at that level up until now.

Public eduction and social restraints—not punishment or fear of incarceration—are responsible for the reductions. Teen smoking rates continue to rise. Appropriately, our national response has been to curtail tobacco advertising and increase public information aimed at teens, not arresting minors who smoke and placing them in jail.

Granted, cocaine is a highly addictive and scary drug. The threat to our youth, however, is not the seller. Cocaine use typically begins with friends or at a party with other users. Cocaine users don’t usually seek out a seller until they are hooked.

And cocaine addicts are not typically gun-wielding, arm robbers or murderers. They write bad checks, shop lift, run up huge credit card bills, prostitute or commit other nonviolent petty crimes. They are hurting and addicted people who need help, not criminalization.

Nicotine is also a highly addictive and scary drug. And we have known for a long time that the cost of cocaine use in terms of health, money and lives lost is a tiny fraction compared to the costs of nicotine use.

In 1993, of the 520,000 preventable drug-related deaths reported by the Journal of the American Medical Association, 4 percent were caused by illegal drugs, including cocaine, and 96 percent—499,000 deaths—were caused by nicotine and alcohol. With 400,000 deaths attributed to nicotine and approximately 100,000 to alcohol, it is clear where the major thereat lies.

Here’s the irony. If a store owner sells cigarettes to a minor, the state law in Michigan calls for a $50 fine, not 1-20 years in prison. Granted, if Robert Bultler (who has since resigned from Calvin College) is found guilty, then he broke the law and betrayed a vital trust in the community. There will need to be some consequences.

At the same time, let’s begin considering the kind of harm reduction approach with cocaine that we have with nicotine. Let us move toward decriminalizing people with drug problems, and find alternatives to putting people with drug problems in jail for years at a time. We should place more of our resources and energy in treatment, education and prevention.

We’ll never win the war on drugs, but we certainly can be wiser and more effective about reducing the harm.

(article was printed in the Grand Rapids Press, 2005)

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Al Heystek, MA, LPC, MDiv

Al is a Licensed Professional Counselor who has worked professionally with men’s issues since 1994. He has been a therapist with the Men’s Resource Center at Fountain Hill since 2002. Prior to that Al worked for OAR, Inc. in Holland, Michigan as a therapist in both outpatient and residential men’s chemical dependency programs. Al also worked for Gateway Foundation, an Outpatient Treatment center in Chicago and prior to that was on a ministerial team for 10 years in an urban ministry in Chicago.  Al is also an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.
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