Op-Ed article for the Hartford Courant in anticipation of the City-sponsored conference on the burden of illicit drugs exerts in the region
October 12, 2005
Is there anyone in Hartford who has not been touched in some way by the effects of illegal drug use? Is anyone satisfied that we have a successful resolution of Connecticut’s problems associated with drug abuse?
We have been fighting the drug war for 30 some years. During that time billions of dollars have been spent (as long ago as 1994 Connecticut alone spent $2.96 billion on the cost of substance abuse and the cost has not gone down), thousands of people have gone to jail, innumerable lives have been lost or destroyed, the quality of drugs coming to Hartford has increased, the cost of the drugs has decreased, and the addiction rate, social ills, and shootings associated with drugs have increased. In Hartford alone, hundreds of men and women have devoted their careers involved in some aspect of the drug war, often placed squarely in harm’s way, doing what society has asked them to do and doing it to the best of their ability. It is not their fault that we still bend under the burden of the illicit drug trade.
Either we are not putting enough resources (money, police, undercover agents, prevention) into the effort or we are barking up the wrong tree. We are obligated to look at our situation and objectively and dispassionately analyze whether we should do more and better what we are presently doing or whether we should do something else.
The many costs in lost or ruined lives is high. What is the cost in dollars? How much of our budget, of our police costs are related to the drug economy? What would be the effect on our economy, on the incomes of poor families, on the costs of policing if the drug economy somehow magically disappeared? If we spent less on drug interdiction or imprisoning non-violent drug users, would we save enough money to deliver more effective treatment programs? What should we do in our schools to make education and the promise of gainful employment more attractive than life the streets? Would eliminating the 300 person waiting list at A. I. Prince Technical School funnel 300 more students into a trade rather than onto the streets? Is marijuana really a gateway drug to the use of more hard core drugs? The national campaign against smoking reduced cigarette consumption by half; would the same campaign style work for illicit drugs? Are prevention programs effective? Are methadone clinics effective? Do needle exchange programs increase drug use?
As I ask these questions around the city, I find most people have no answers or have answers based on misinformation. There is plenty of emotion and there are plenty of opinions, usually strongly held, often because we fear any change in policy will increase the chance our children might get involved in drugs. Politicians have been reluctant to attack this complicated, emotion-charged subject.
But we must begin to do more than lament the damage done by drug usage in our state. Good policy must be built on solid information. Our citizens and our legislators need to constantly work to be better informed about the viewpoints that have determined policies in the past and to re-evaluate those policies when they don’t have the effect society desires.
To this end, the City of Hartford has undertaken to convene a conference: “Illicit Drugs—Burden and Policy” on October 21st and 22nd. Sponsored by the Aetna Foundation and hosted by Trinity College, this conference will hear local and national experts meet the drug problem head on. They will be challenged to tell us what resources are needed to increase our success in efforts to reduce drug use and its associated social and criminal ramifications. All citizens are invited and, in turn, will be challenged to look at the drug scourge with a broad, new vision.
Robert L. Painter, M.D.
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