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Comment on Drug Court and the War on Drugs

Over at What happens when you tell a lie? (Marijo Cook’s Salonblog), there is an interesting post: Drug Court and the War on Drugs, about a pretty amazing judge named Seth Norman.

Judge Norman, along with probably every other criminal court judge in the country, was fed up with the War on Drugs by 1995. From his point of view, the War was causing overcrowding in the jails, a massive increase in the number of cases on his docket, and little in the way of improvements in the situation on the streets. Statistics showed that 80% of the cases he was hearing involved drugs or alcohol in some way, and 60% of the people in those cases had a chemical dependency. Most of them were repeat offenders.

The piece goes on to explain how the judge set up a valuable and unique treatment program despite enormous obstacles.
However, Marijo then talks about some of the “necessary” coercive elements of the program, including “fall in love — go to jail” rules, and other methods of force to get the addicts to focus on their treatment.

This may sound heartless or patronizing, but remember that if the addicts were left to do what they wanted, they would eventually die.

And she concludes:

So, the War on Drugs may not be a total loss after all, if more Judges around the country can follow Judge Norman‰s example with DC4. Providing treatment instead of simply locking addicts up is showing good early results in managing the drug problem and proving to be cost effective as well. The DC4 treatment program is only a part of a Drug Court system which includes education for first-time offenders and outpatient treatment for those on probation, but for the hardest addicts, this residential program sponsored by a judge and the jails is providing the best chance out there for a return to normal life.

Here I have to take major exception.
The War on Drugs is a total loss.
Coerced treatment is only positive to the extent that you view it as a lesser evil within the failed drug war.
I know there is a lot of support in portions of the drug reform community for coerced treatment, but once you take away the drug war (which we need to), then coerced treatment makes no sense, whether for drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, or obesity.
Take away the black market — the dealers looking to hook someone, the fear of admitting addiction, the legal consequences, the full time occupation of the addict to find the money for their next fix, and you can handle treatment of those addicts who need it through a combination of voluntary methods ranging from counseling to maintenance programs without coercion (see Free Heroin).
I admire the fact that Judge Norman cares. That he’s trying to do something for addicts. But I don’t accept coerced treatment as even a partial justification for the war on drugs.
In his North Carolina Law Review article, Judge Morris Hoffman wrote

“The moral authority of our most cherished institutions comes from their voluntary nature: the value of advice from a priest, a teacher or a loved one depends in large part on the fact that we are free to ignore it. But judges’ pieces of ‘advice’ are court orders, enforceable ultimately by the raw physical power of imprisonment. It is precisely because of the awesomely enforceable nature of our powers that we must be so circumspect in exercising them. It is one thing for a co-worker, family member, doctor, or clergyman to confront someone about a perceived drug problem; it is quite another thing for a judge to compel drug treatment. Drug courts not only fail to recognize this important institutional distinction, but their very purpose is to obliterate it.”

[More from Judge Hoffman at Unitarian Universalists for Drug Policy Reform]

Update: Corrected Marijo’s gender. Sorry about that!

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