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Thursday, June 1, 2023
June 1, 2023

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Donnelly: Permissive policy approach to drugs not working


We need a redesigned war on dangerous and addictive drugs. A torrent of fentanyl, heroin, opioids, and legal and illegal marijuana is wreaking havoc on our schools, neighborhoods and businesses. Our courts and jails are swamped with the burdens of crimes related to drugs. Mental health challenges, already staggering, are exacerbated.

Property crime is spiking in large part because of the addicts and the criminal opportunists in the drug trade who prey on them. Vancouver apartment dwellers tell me brazen drug deals are common around their buildings.

Consider homelessness. Our best minds are at work to sift through solutions to replace inhumane encampments. But millions of tax dollars and the most generous philanthropy will be thwarted by rampant drug addiction and the crime associated with it.

From the “war on drugs” of the 1970s, to the “just say no” campaign of the 1980s, previous efforts have been widely derided as failures. Yet they may have turned millions of kids from drug use. We can’t quantify the successes.

We do know that today’s permissive approach — expanding legalization of marijuana, decriminalization of the most dangerous drugs, and lack of decisive action against international gangs pouring heroin and fentanyl into the country — is not addressing record overdoses and spiking crime.

So, what should be done? First, recognize that the surge of drugs in our society is on a newly massive scale. The acclaimed book “Dream Land” by Sam Quinones documented the explosive rise of the opiate epidemic as well as the growth of international cartels distributing heroin and fentanyl with grim efficiency. Drug dealers target children as young as middle school using Snapchat and Instagram. In high school, the same kids may already be engaged in the illegal drug trade, targeting classmates.

Second, we must assemble the political will to fight back. We must bring law enforcement back into the discussion with elected officials and nonprofits at all levels.

One local law enforcement expert describes the heartbreak of seeing the same individuals try to beat addiction and fail, resuming the crime that pays for the drugs. With the most extreme and painful addictions — meth, heroin and fentanyl — 98 percent of those seen in our jails would prefer to be drug free. The alternatives — suboxone, methadone, vivitrol — are costly and must be funded from public sources.

Intervention, either from family or law enforcement, is crucial to resetting the addict’s path toward fighting the addiction. Hitting rock bottom in jail, forced detoxification, and drug counseling within the jail are crucial to an addict’s decision to change.

The passage of SB 5476 in 2021 — eliminating arrest until the drug possessor has been offered treatment two times — does a disservice to addicts in need of intervention, according to those with extensive hands-on experience. There are few consequences for drug dealers, and none for personal users even for the most harmful of drugs. Major drug dealers now have less to fear from the intelligence gathering associated with arrests of lower-level users.

SB 5476 has empowered the drug user and dealer, and hamstrung law enforcement. It must be revised to restore some of law enforcement’s tools to fight crime arising from the drug trade. Its sponsors — 10 Democrats and one Republican, Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center — should lead a bipartisan effort to rewrite it.

Above all, we must try again to keep young people away from drugs. Their decisions on drugs — not race or family wealth — determine their future opportunities. Parents, teachers, coaches, and elected officials at all levels must log onto Snapchat and, in consistent language kids understand, persuade them to say no to drugs.