by M. Abdul-Qawiyy

Drug use is not going away, Jonathan Calkins, co-author of “Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know,” said during a “War on Drugs” forum held at the Morningside Church of God in Christ.

Hosted by the Bloomfield Garfield Corporation, the discussion was to examine whether or not the “War on Drugs,” launched 40 years ago by the federal government, should be abandoned and, if any, what new approaches should be implemented.

“The war on drugs assumes that the use of drugs or the drug problem can be solved. I think that’s not the correct phrasing, instead can we, realistically, make the problem smaller? Yes,” Calkins said.

Calkins was also joined by panelists Rev. J. David Else and Zone 5 Police Commander Tim O’Connor, whose opinions differed on drug policy.

“The war on drugs isn’t working. That’s it. We haven’t come up with one thing to have effective change and its hurting our communities,” Else stated.

“Well, for as long as I have been in law enforcement, sometimes I think the drug problem is even worse now than what it was 20 years ago,” O’Connor said.

The Pittsburghers who attended the meeting, mostly members from different churches, were concerned citizens who felt that drug use and drug related violence in Pittsburgh needed to be addressed. They said as many others across America: the war on drugs has been an immense failure of the government and law enforcement.

Since the declaration of a “War on Drugs,” it appears as though regulations were put in place, laws were enforced, and the result? Mass incarceration; however as O’Connor commented, “We arrest the people selling and doing drugs. Okay fine. But the more people that are arrested, others fill their place. How can we stop that? How can we stop someone from paying kids, who want the quick money and aren’t targeted by the law, to sell for them?”

As O’Connor alluded to, how can arresting drug users help to correct the problem, if they are not treated? If one is a user, or simply selling drugs, and only arrested, when released one will be more prone to become a user or seller again and thus a cycle ensues. What about treatment and prevention?

Current drug policies are law enforcement focused, when there are many other aspects as to how the drug problem can, and should, be addressed.

In June 2011, a report from the Global Commission on Drug Policy stated in its principles: “Drug policies must be pursued in a comprehensive manner, involving families, schools, public health specialists, development practitioners and civil society leaders, in partnership with law enforcement agencies and other relevant governmental bodies.

“The development and implementation of drug policies should be a global shared responsibility, but also needs to take into consideration diverse political, social and cultural realities,” Calkins said.

In response to this statement Rev. Else commented, “Drug use and addiction is a disease and drugs are just one way that people do it. But before any policy or law is put in place, healing must come from the individual. Willingness to heal must come from within.”

As Else made these remarks, others in the room applauded and hummed their approval.

“It seems as though we, the community, give a lot of lip service on this war on drugs,” Rev. Else said. “But what are you doing to help your fellow brothers and sisters in the community who has this issue? Take for example Alcoholics Anonymous it is an effective way that does not involve law enforcement to get results and it works. We need to focus on prevention and treatment. That starts with the community first.”

Calkins interjected, “We have to keep in mind that the vast majority of drug users is not dependent, and come from all walks of life…there are more people who use infrequently and only one in six will be dependent users. And as I mention in my book, when drugs are made illegal it automatically opens up the illegal market and everything that it entails. We need to think about reforming the current policies and possible legalization of some drugs.”

O’Connor, who has been in law enforcement and criminal justice for more than 30 years, commented, “I don’t have any answers for youi. I enforce the law, but I have questions too. I’m open to any suggestions.”

There were several comments from the audience, “What if we take away the money from the drug dealers? Since they are earning it in an illegal way?” The room was silent and there were several mumblings.

“We are all here tonight,” Rev.Else said, “because we are concerned, and even though we represent totally different authorities in our community,” while pointing at his fellow panelists, “we are experiencing powerlessness. We are, in some ways, experiencing how a drug user feels, powerless. Because we have all these enforcements in place but let’s begin to lawfully approach it from treatment and recovery first.”

Panelists and community members agreed to meet again and continue the discussion in order to generate ideas and, hopefully, a plan of action to not only implement and expand effective drug treatment within their communities, but also to get the local and national government invested in alternative approaches.

“The meeting was very successful and we expect this to be just the beginning,” Eileen Kraus-Dobratz, a BGC Board member, said, “We will be planning further action along two lines: Firstly, what the government should fashion as a reasonable and sustainable drug policy, with regard to both enforcement and judicial issues (what drugs should be legal and illegal, if any, and what should law enforcement priorities be, how should defendants be treated in the judicial process) and secondly, what the community should do on its own, providing what Rev. Else described as healing.”

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