In a word, everybody's crazy about drugs.
Whether by prescription or on the street, whether you like your pill
dressed in Pfizer blue or prefer little dull ones stamped with a bat
emblem, love them or hate them, we've got a thing for drugs.
Government agencies of every variety want to control or get rid of
them altogether, while every little criminal -- from the two-bit
grifter on the corner to the really nice doctor eight floors above --
seem to do all they can to keep them coming.
"Yes, we're pretty down the rabbit hole on all this," says Pat
Flemming, who, for the past 20 years, has led the state's substance
abuse prevention program or directed Salt Lake County's efforts.
"We're at a crossroads. We're either going to keep at it as if it
were some kind of war or we're going to make some real headway. We're
starting to -- the endmethnow campaign, for example -- go in the
"Compassion and treatment is the morally right and the much more
economically sensible thing to do," he said. "Continuing to turn
people into criminals has never worked and never will."
The Status Quotient
The status quo of the state health care system, as leaders of a new
statewide overhaul effort keep saying, cannot be sustained. In less
than 20 years, if something isn't done, the cost of paying for
insurance coverage will equal the average household income.
The status quo of drug policies and practices cannot be sustained
either, a range of people, from those conducting research on drug use
to drug runners, told the Deseret News.
A man who spent his career chasing drug dealers and users said
current policies have hurt much more than they have helped and, in
the process, have turned the United States into "incarceration
nation" by filling its prisons almost as fast as cars fill a new freeway.
Jack Cole, co-founder of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and a
retired lieutenant with the New Jersey state police narcotics squad,
said things have gotten past a joke, and it's way past time to wise up.
"Despite all the lives we have destroyed -- the trillions in tax
dollars and the 37 million arrests for nonviolent offenses -- today
illicit drugs are cheaper, more potent and far easier to get than
they were 35 years ago at the beginning of the war on drugs," Cole said.
According to LEAP figures, more than 2.2 million U.S. citizens are
currently incarcerated because of drug-related crimes, and another
1.9 million are added every year replacing those who are paroled or
pass through the system.
"Meanwhile, people are getting run over by the system for small-time
dealing or using, the drug lords keep getting richer, the wheels of
justice keep grinding away," he said. "And the general public just
keeps getting more scared and just more willing to pay another $69
billion a year to feel better," he said. "This is the very definition
of a failed public policy. And doing the same thing over and over
expecting a different outcome is the very definition of madness."
Judges hearing drug cases say they are as overwhelmed as the poor
souls standing before their benches. Users say most of the time
they're as lost and more ashamed of themselves than any of their few
remaining loved ones and family members could be.
Drug counselors say despite their best efforts, users are as likely
to quit on their own because they've just gotten fed up with the
rigmarole of getting drugs, getting caught and getting out as they
are from therapy.
And most people -- 97 percent -- who use cocaine and heroin say they
wouldn't if they were legalized, Cole said.
"What we're left with is a system that runs over people who can't
afford a good lawyer," he said. "It treats the affluent
anesthesiologist who gets caught with his controlled substance
huffing for fun a lot harsher than the poor guy caught for the same thing."
"We passed crazy a while ago," said a 41-year-old father in Box Elder
County who was recently reunited with his two children after spending
12 years in and out of jail and prison for being caught in 1997 with
two hits of LSD.
"It's complete looney-tunes out there," he told the Deseret News last
month. "What in the world are we trying to do? Whatever it is, it
ain't helping. That much I know for sure."
He said he got mixed up with drugs while in high school. He is quick
to point out he doesn't blame a rough childhood or abusive foster
parents, "but I knew I was different and had to do what I could to
make other kids like me." To that end, buying them candy in grade
school evolved into marijuana in high school.
"I had a lot of pain I was carrying around, and the drugs helped me
forget that," he said during a break from playing the video game
"Rock Band" with his son. His first jail stint was at 16 when he was
arrested with marijuana paraphernalia in his car.
"What I'd like people to know is I went to jail as a drug user and I
came out a criminal," he said. "It's almost like that's what they've
decided you are and what they expect you to be. And honestly, that's
how you start to convince yourself you are just some kind of super
loser who's never going to get right no matter how hard you try to
live by their program."
More often than not, he said, he diligently abided every condition of
his incarceration. And sometimes, he believes, a judge with no more
cause than having a bad day would find something wrong -- a lack of
reporting in or denying a report of a "dirty" urinalysis test -- that
would tack on another three or nine months.
"I'm not looking to make excuses, but I've been through it so I know.
The system may get people off the streets, but it also turns a lot of
people against the world for some pretty minor stuff. Or worse, they
turn on themselves. Like the song says, 'I am what you say I am.'
They believe you're this bad guy, so you say to yourself, 'Well,
that's what I'll become."'
Worse Than You Think
The next evening and some 60 miles to the south, panels of experts
and a group of learned and dour listeners, gathered for a conference
at the University of Utah law school, are coming to a similar
conclusion, describing the current drug policy in academic terms:
"incoherent, unjust, gone awry, run amok."
At the conference, Joseph Califano, a former domestic adviser to two
U.S. presidents, is getting in the last word and coming very close to
flying off the handle:
"There is complicity to this scourge at every level in our society,"
said Califano, the former four-pack-a-day smoker who believes
Americans aren't necessarily crazy about drugs. "They're just high."
Not from ingesting alcohol, prescription and illegal drugs at 10 to
20 times the rate of any other developed country, "but from being
addicted to denying this enemy within -- the number one killer and
crippler that will destroy us if we don't sober up."
"Whatever," said Alissa Stookey, a former heroin and meth addict.
"It's the same tired old scare tactics: Get people in an agitated,
highly suggestible state of mind, target 'the problem' out there,
guilt people for not seeing it or doing enough to stop it, then sell
them on an idea or product that ultimately provides a sense of
security. Thing is, it's all just phantom comfort."
In the process, she and other users told the newspaper, drugs become
an enemy so powerful that everything starts to feed off it: Getting
high becomes an ever more serious crime, law enforcement gets bigger
budgets, more people get busted, more of them go to jail, more jails
get built, and next thing you know, drugs are the leading cause of
nearly every societal ill.
"Nothing changes, except that people cower and frown and tell each
other, 'Oh, it's just so terrible that so-and-so's son overdosed or
so-and-so's daughter is in jail. Drugs, oh they're just so awful.'
And that's as far as the discussion goes," Stookey said.
Drugs do cause a lot of tragedy, she and the three dozen illegal and
legal substance users and abusers interviewed for this story agree.
But blaming drugs for society's ills just ensures the epidemic will
continue -- and so will the shoring up of funding streams for the
courts and government agencies assigned to deal with the problem, they say.
Every product advertisement or public education campaign on any
product or service, be it hamburgers or drug rehab, is based on three
overriding human emotions, Stookey said. They are fear, uncertainty
and doubt. So common is that human state of being that advertising
agencies use the FUD acronym in campaigns. "Hit any of those three
states of mind, and you've hit your target."
Worse Than Drugs?
There are positive steps being made, such as the drug court approach,
which emphasizes treatment over jail. The endmethnow campaign
currently under way avoids the old "this is your body on drugs" scare tactic.
But those both in and out of the drug scene, to a person, say all of
the public education campaigns, all of the drug conferences and all
of the brain research in the world reinforces one thing: the public
notion that there's nothing worse than drugs.
"Oh yes there is, and every person and every police officer who
thinks that will tell you there's something worse: somebody who uses
drugs," said Michael DeSmet, a Sugar House resident who was arrested
in February for possession and intent to distribute methamphetamine.
Since his arrest, he has lost his livelihood, his pickup truck with
its $4,000 stereo and $7,000 in construction tools locked in the
back. He also lost any respect he had for law enforcement in Utah.
"I've cooperated and am doing everything they've asked for, and I'm
being thrashed," said DeSmet, who readily admits to regularly using
methamphetamine but who adamantly denies distributing the illegal
stimulant or having any intent to do so.
During an evidentiary hearing on April 15, his original charges were
upped to a first-degree felony possession with intent to distribute
and a second count for distribution near a church or school.
He was evicted from his house, which came with his storage shed
management job, and he lost his job because of the charges. He hasn't
been paid for his work, he said, which, including overtime, amounts
to about $40,000. He is being given a hearing before the labor
commission and goes back to court on his charges May 5.
"They have authority to go as far as they want to go and resort to
any means to thwart or to appear to be thwarting the drug craze," he said.
DeSmet, who moved from California, has "a past" but next to no hope
of having the future he came here to try to find. "I don't deny and
didn't deny having (the meth) or that it's against the law. I let
them in without a warrant, I did what they asked, but things have
come completely unglued."
Court documents say that in the home a bag was found containing 12.8
grams, or about a half ounce, of a powder that field-tested as
methamphetamine. There were also two glass pipes and a digital scale.
"I've been around this stuff off and on since I'm 15 (he's now 43).
I'm not proud of it or saying nothing should happen now," he said.
"But it's like meth is the new Godzilla, except it's worse -- it's as
real as an atomic bomb to people, at least in people's minds who
don't realize -- and don't want to, apparently -- that there are
functioning, working people who are their neighbors on the stuff.
"People have given it and all drugs so much power," he said. "I swear
it's like a real magic word. Say meth or get caught with it and,
poof, your life disappears -- not just your stuff, your whole life."
The amount DeSmet handed over is a dealer-size quantity, but he says
it was a month's worth of personal use to help boost his energy at
work and keep in check the emotional and physical pain of living with
Stage 4 melanoma. He has gone through chemotherapy and refuses to go
again, saying it ruined his health and didn't keep the cancer in
check. He has four sores. One on his upper back is a black and red
crater nearly a half-inch deep and as big around as a silver dollar.
"The worst part is I'm losing my hair from all this grief," DeSmet
said, in an attempt to lighten the mood after reluctantly showing a
visitor the cancer on his back.
DeSmet refuses medical treatment, and he's refusing to plea bargain
his case "for the simple fact that I did not do what they said I did.
The guy who supposedly bought from me was paying me back 40 bucks. He
just threw it on the ground and walked off."
Turns out the money was marked and the buyer was a friend turning on him.
"But no purchase was made. I don't deal," he said. "I picked (the
money) up and put it in my pocket, and suddenly undercover cops roll up."
They were on private property, had been let in illegally by a tenant
apparently in an attempt to observe a drug deal that didn't happen
behind a cinder-block wall they couldn't see through, DeSmet said.
If he can find a lawyer who wants to defend him rather than promote a
plea, he plans to present evidence on Monday that he says proves
wrong every charge against him. Included in the stack of evidence are
court documents, pictures and personal journal entries of calls to
the police and courts he made every day since his initial arrest.
Part of the evidence he will submit are photographs of the storage
shed where the alleged deal took place. They depict every possible
angle -- including from a Google Earth satellite. Whether from space
or on the ground, to watch it would require seeing around a corner,
an 8-foot setback and through a wall.
His legal battles continue, including the escalation of charges.
DeSmet's friends, those who use drugs, those who don't and the
business owner who put up his bail, said his case is so far into the
margins it's not even on the map of what's called for, legally or morally.
"OK, Mike is not a saint, and the stuff is illegal," one of DeSmet's
friends said on condition of anonymity. "Fine. But to hamstring a guy
and give him the system runaround and take his livelihood, not to
mention his truck -- which in another reality would be grand theft
auto -- then I just don't know. Are we all that desperate to just
turn over common decency and common sense over a little dope?"
Yes. In so many words, yes we are, say several of the academics
gathered at the law school last month. Eleven of them have written a
book that in several thousand words says the country is so
disoriented about the drug issue, there is little to no hope of
developing any kind of coherent drug policy.
The war on drugs amounts to applying Mercurochrome on an open artery
or trying to end a flu epidemic by putting the virus in jail.
It's failure across the board, state the authors of "Drugs and
Justice: Seeking a Consistent, Coherent, Comprehensive View." The
book was published this past November by Oxford University Press.
There has been a plethora of gaffes from outright meanness to
knuckleheaded policies, such as the state Legislature approving
standards for methamphetamine detection without the first hint of
scientific data to back them up. Earlier this year, lawmakers adopted
a bill designed to rectify current practice by establishing uniform
contamination standards developed by the State Department of Health.
"Putting exposure from using a bathroom where the drug was smoked a
couple times on the same footing as a site of a meth lab where it was
made is, well, just adds more chaos to the issue," said book
co-author and bioethicist Margaret Battin, a distinguished professor
at the University of Utah.
"Despite the enormous expense to governments, cost to taxpayers and
emotional and financial ruin of people in its wake, the gears of this
vast drug policy just keep turning and grinding, and we don't have
the first idea of what's really going on," she said. "We haven't even
examined our rationale for why some drugs are illegal and some aren't."
But with the current drug policy, there's no big conspiracy -- it's
just the way things work right now, Battin said.
"But we can make them work the way that serves greater justice and
the control of substances, not just criminalizing and controlling the
user," she said.
REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: HIGH SOCIETY
There are two secret ingredients in the so-called drug problem as
necessary as poppy plants are for heroin or cruddy glassware is to making meth.
They are in the residue of every lab the police shut down. They are
in every urine test but never test positive. They're in the record
and on the face of every angry young man in handcuffs before a judge
and in the eyes of his mother sitting in the back row of the court
room. They motivate every user and every effort trying to stop them.
They are fear and shame. Together they form a compound as potent as
any of life-ruining chemicals that are the center of the lives
featured in today's edition of the Deseret News.
I see them just off-stage of our life on drugs -- they're behind the
scenes in both a meth house and courthouse. They make a pain drug
users are trying to deaden and make society want to add greater doses
of brutality to the judicial system, all in hopes of making people feel better.
The nasty little compound is invisible but as real as the changing
colors in a cop's drug potency field test kit. They're not in the
autopsy report of a 19-year-old boy found in his bedroom of a
million-dollar house in Layton, fully dressed on his back holding a
half-eaten candy bar. But they're in his folks, down to the cell and
a shadow over every thought and action of his mother from now on.
There are traces on all the money -- now in the trillions -- and in
the ink flashed across the brochures and the billboards of the public
education campaigns. The shared fear and shame about drugs are in the
bricks and mortar of the overflowing jails and the new ones being
built that will overflow too.
Not to mention fear and shame today, especially in light of this
story, would be to leave out the most important contributing factors
of of our life on drugs. They are with the user when they start and
still there when they stop. They are in court every day -- 80 percent
of those in the Salt Lake County Jail on any given day are people
busted for drug possession, most often non-violent.
They are hardly ever talked about, but they are the vector of what is
actually a public health epidemic that has been turned over to a
criminal justice system that neither wants or can afford them.
Fear and shame, not drugs, turn kids who make mistakes -- and
probably need treatment as much as punishment -- into inmates who
will keep going back to jail. They'll frustrate lenient judges and
kind family members with acts of harm because they are ashamed of
being someone they believe their families shouldn't care about and
the world is much better without.
Fear and shame aren't a line item in the governor's budget. Nor are
they mentioned in any of the 47 bills that state lawmakers have
passed since 1992 in an attempt to do something about
methamphetamine, a powder that looks as benign as salt but scares
them and their constituents to death. Meth, Utah's du jour illegal
drug, is very potent. Its "magic" comes from the power of users who
get their brains beaten by it to the courts and do-gooders who act as
if it is a radioactive isotope. It makes users feel invincible and
its hangover makes the problem or shame, or "pain body," as
therapists call it these days, weigh heavier. Other people will mix
up unlikely potions of fermented grain, dried leaves and seeds to
feel better, even for a moment.
Some like alcohol, legal and in fancy labels, and we're OK with that
to a point. The other substances, prescription or not, are
"controlled," which means they are outlawed in most nonmedically
supervised situations. Society in turn has grown a "pain body" so big
that no one dares have a public discussion about what's really behind
the drug problem.
Seen up close the past year, the drug problem is often an individual
attempting to fix shame, depression or fear with a substance that
just creates a bigger version of shame, depression or fear. And from
all accounts, the problem is going -- probably already has gone -- global.
We keep trying to feel better by putting those who use drugs out with
the trash. The users recognize this, and are reminded of it, every
time they get arrested and then put to the curb. They know they're
breaking the law, and to some it's just part of the thrill. They also
eventually realize that getting off drugs does not help them any more
than using drugs did. In fact, many say life actually gets a lot
worse after they quit. They have a record that makes restoring their
confidence -- such as a job or housing -- difficult at best. After 25
years of a drug war, the real enemy is still with us, going away and
then returning Utah's valleys like haze on a spring day. The way
things have gone, we've been as effective at getting rid of drugs as
we would be trying to clear the air over Salt Lake City with a
pitchfork. I don't mean to bait fear, as every drug user interviewed
for today's story accused the news media of doing every day, but no
amount of money, no piece of legislation, no matter how insightful,
will rid the world of the two main ingredients that seem to be part
of the human condition since Eve told Adam about the fruit.
So what? Nothing of substance is in the immediate future, although
efforts to push a more honest discussion and a less expensive way of
dealing with the issue toward the middle of the spectrum.
One off-and-on user says she knows what wrong and what it will take:
"It's something wrong with our spirit -- everybody. And some feel
better by using drugs and some feel better crusading against them and
feeling above it all with bigger houses and nicer cars.
"Neither lasts. It's not about how much of that bad stuff you do or
how much nice stuff, you have to protect yourself from the bad stuff
and bad people. Think a minute, don't just react. Instead of shame
and fear, try compassion for a minute. That's what lasts, in yourself
all by itself. You get right inside and so will the world."
A USER'S ARGUMENT FOR DRUG LEGALIZATION
Joe Florez has had an on-and-off relationship with methamphetamine
for more than 20 years and, at times, a rocky association with his
family because of it.
He accepts and deals with it but doesn't hide it. The main thing he
wants to say about the drug issue is the public wants something to go
away that the powers that be don't.
"It's that simple. Hands higher than a county or state education and
substance abuse treatment workers want to keep things as they are,"
Florez said. "And why? Money."
He is convinced that the so-called drug problem would disappear if
drugs that are already a controlled substance went to the next phase
and were legalized.
"If these things were prescribed, people who really are addicted to
them could get medical help from a doctor and treatment for what they
say is a disease. Now, you get punished and labeled a criminal
forever for doing the same thing people do with a prescription
antidepressant or with a martini after work."
No one is willing to even have that discussion, and no one ever seems
to ask why, he said Thursday as he worked on fixing a bigger problem
at the moment -- the ignition system of his car.
"People think there would be some kind of free-for-all," he said.
"There's a free-for-all now. Legalizing gets equated with condoning
use. Legalizing would add some actual control to what are already
listed by the government as controlled substances.
"Meanwhile, the 'collar dollars' collected from the users and petty
dealers who get busted keeps the cops and courts funded and busy and
off really important work," he said. "The multibillions keep being
raked in by the cartels who supply the drugs that make our
pharmaceutical industry look like the five and dime."
Florez is quick to point out he doesn't condone the use or the crime
that often comes as a byproduct of the drug scene.
"But the crime and the entire scene would go away if they were
legalized," he said. "Like the last prohibition, half the people who
went to the speakeasies had never drunk alcohol before prohibition
and didn't after it ended. It lost a lot of its allure when it became legal."
Law Enforcement Against Prohibition: www.leap.cc/cms/index.php
Joseph Califano and the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse:
Answers to frequently asked questions regarding addiction and therapy
are available through the Salt Lake County Division of Substance
Abuse Services at www.slco.org/resource/faq/subAbuse.html
"Drugs and Justice: Seeking a Consistent, Coherent, Comprehensive
View," Oxford University Press, is available at or through most
bookstores. Author contact information can be found at www.oup.com
Newshawk: Dale Gieringer
Pubdate: Sun, 4 May 2008
Source: Deseret Morning News (Salt Lake City, UT)
Copyright: 2008 Deseret News Publishing Corp.
Author: James Thalman