Thursday, February 9, 2012

Drug Epidemic(?)

Saw an interesting article in yesterday's paper (see, here). Essentially, a local Multnomah County DA has proposed a new bill to the Oregon legislature to drastically alter drug prosecution laws - at least in regards to heroin. As a criminal defense attorney, this is piqued my curiosity.

Now, I haven't read the actual bill but the article says the proposal would amend the definition of "mentally ill" to include heroin addicts and allow a hearing to "commit" those addicts to treatment instead of the standard penalties for possession.

First, I applaud the idea of someone on the prosecution side of things thinking outside the box. This country needs to come to the sobering (yes, pun intended) reality that the current "War on Drugs" is an unmitigated disaster, and total failure. Simply put, it is not working and all the research and statistics prove that. So, on that end, bravo Mr. Prosecutor.

Having said that (my favorite phrase courtesy of Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David), this plan won't work for several reasons. First, as a criminal defense attorney, my experience is that there simply is not enough treatment beds or facilities. I have had numerous clients desperately wanting to get into inpatient treatment spending months in jail or prison waiting for an opening. So, unless the bill is going to fund new facilities, we simply do not have the room for these "commitments". The article says that the bill would pay for the treatment with money currently used for incarceration but it doesn't explain how or if enough money would be funneled from incarceration costs to treatment costs.

Second, and this is simply my personal and anecdotal experience, drug addicts often won't stick with a treatment plan until they are truly ready to quit - and that is a personal issue the timing of which cannot be measured in statistics or attacked with a broad brush or macro-analysis.

Further, my other problem with this plan is the terms. The article says that anyone with two drug possession convictions in the last five years would (or could, is this a decision left solely up to the individual prosecutor?) be subject to the new law. Listen, I'm no heroin addict, nor have I used heroin, but we need to have some serious discussions about the difference between an addict and a recreational user. I know there's little question about the powerful affects of this drug and, no doubt, anyone using is at-risk for an overdose - but two times in five years! To me, that doesn't sound like someone knocking on death's door. The real desperate junkies must have more contact with the criminal justice system than that. When you're using on a somewhat regular or daily basis, it's simply unavoidable.

Just like with so many other things, the system would take a broad-brush approach with this new law, rope way more people into its purview than is appropriate, and then miserably fail to deliver as all these people "committed" to treatment would be sitting around (in jail?) waiting to get into treatment without access - sound familiar? It does to me in my experience with the criminal justice system. Can't we take more pragmatic approaches to systemic changes and actually accomplish something?

Obviously, this whole discussion eschews all the significant constitutional and legal issues that would abound in forcing people into treatment but the article, and my former colleague, addressed those and I agree with his sentiments. But, maybe, this is the start of a discussion of moving drug addiction from the criminal justice system to the public health and mental health systems which is, in my humble opinion, a step in the right direction. However, we have got to properly fund those areas of society before we even begin to make that transition - moving some of the prosecution and incarceration funding in that direction would be a start. And, for all those who think taking money away from prosecution, enforcement, and incarceration is a terrible idea - do some research. The crime statistics over the last twenty years show a steep and steady decline. Any recent crime and drug epidemic discussions (at least on a macro-level) are mostly the products of political maneuvering and propaganda.

Finally, and most telling to me, is the statistic buried in the last line of the article. Of course, Mr. Crusading Prosecutor probably failed to mention this (and it certainly seems to fly in the face of the "problem" presented at the article's outset, i.e., the "epidemic of heroin overdose deaths") but the Oregon state medical examiner reports show that heroin-related deaths acutally dropped from 2009 to 2010 (the numbers for 2011 are not available yet)...hmmm....interesting.

1 comment:

  1. Terrible to lump all heroin addicts as mental health patients. There are no easy solutions - but harm reduction approaches are showing the most positive results.