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May 4, 2008 -- Deseret Morning News (UT)

High Society:

U.S. Drug Policy A Total Failure, Say Users And Experts

By James Thalman

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

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 right direction.

"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."

Beyond Crazy

"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.

Policy Failure

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."

Additional Resources

Law Enforcement Against Prohibition:

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

"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

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