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Denver drug debate: Examining America's 40-year war

Coverage of a debate at Denver Open Media, sponsored by Liberty on the Rocks in partnership with the Drug Policy Alliance. Denver, CO 6/17/2011
Coverage of a debate at Denver Open Media, sponsored by Liberty on the Rocks in partnership with the Drug Policy Alliance. Denver, CO 6/17/2011
Barry Ritchey II

Liberty on the Rocks in partnership with Drug Policy Alliance sponsored a debate at Denver Open Media on Friday, June 17 entitled “Examining the War on Drugs 40 Years Later: Is It Worth the Cost?” referring to the anniversary of President Nixon's official declaration of a “war on drugs” piggybacking on the administration's broader policy directive dubbed a “war on crime.”

From left: David K. Williams Jr., Jessica Corry, Thomas J. Gorman, Carol Chambers
Barry Ritchey II

Sitting on the panel were direct public policy enforcers of said 'war' and private-sector public policy analysts decidedly against drug prohibition, a group that I thought could turn out to produce an excellent unfiltered discussion; I wasn't disappointed:

Thomas J. Gorman

  • Director of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area

  • Graduate of FBI National Academy

  • 10 years as an undercover narcotics agent

  • Over 1,000 purchases of illicit drugs

  • Author of “Marijuana Is Not a Medicine”

Jessica Corry

  • Political strategist, public policy analyst

  • Graduate of CU Boulder, Masters in Government from Johns Hopkins, and studied law at University of Denver

  • Attorney in Denver; land use, election campaign finance law, Constitutional law, criminal defense

  • Served on Fraser v. Centennial; 1st and 10th Amendment victory

  • Denver Examiner highlighted her as one of Colorado's Most Influential Women in 2007

Carol Chambers

  • Graduated from the University of Denver College of Law

  • Former nurse at Denver General; graduated from Texas Christian University

  • With the18th Judicial District Attorney's office since 1990

  • Elected as District Attorney of Colorado's 18th Judicial District in 2004 serving presently

  • Created Special Victims Unit for vulnerable and at-risk members of society

  • Works for increased sentences for criminals in Arapahoe, Douglas, Lincoln, and Elbert counties

David K. Williams Jr.

  • Co-founder and Director of Gadsden Society, public advocacy group

  • Former Chair of the Libertarian Party of Colorado, current Legislative Director

  • Graduated from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill; B.A. in Economics

  • Graduated from the University of North Carolina School of Law; Juris Doctor (with honors)

  • One of Colorado's “Hottest Politicos” by Face the State in 2009

Considering "drug abuse" is at its highest level in nearly a decade, this topic may be one worth visiting. And perhaps re-visiting.

The debate wasn't a direct, question-answer format. It more closely resembled a panel discussion/lecture. However, there were points of contention between the panelists that were flushed out in a respectful and intelligent way.

The night started off with Thomas J. Gorman, an avid drug warrior, and an unassuming fatherly figure, in seeming contradiction to his past and present positions of undercover intrigue and power.

He may have very well sensed an overwhelming majority of the audience was not going to agree with his conclusions, so he stuck to the points that most people can agree on.

Mr. Gorman said, “The reason we have drug policy in this country is very simple: We want to minimize the amount of people that are using drugs."

“Why do we want to do that? We want to do that because we believe that the damage from drug use does so much damage to our society that the less people using drugs, the better off for our society.”

“It's tragic what happens to people, poor people, when they let drugs overtake them.”

Nodding heads throughout the room.

But unfortunately, it was just downhill from there.

He went on, “Look at what happens to 'Hollywood types' that go to rehab because of what drugs do to them.”

Seemingly indicating that a voluntary commitment to address one's vices through medical therapy might be a negative thing. Would he rather they be arrested and have court-ordered treatment? Better yet, punishment?

Fortunately, when Denver attorney Jessica Corry spoke, she did call attention to Mr. Gorman's misstep and took advantage by addressing the more pervasive problem of “legal” drug abuse in Hollywood.

Mrs. Corry said, “When it comes to those 'Hollywood types,' I think about an actress named Brittany Murphy, who died on my 30th birthday. And at her bedside was a table filled with pills ... prescriptions drugs she [or her husband and mother] ... had gotten legally,” also adding, “There was a pro video gamer, a 15-year-old, who overdosed on Adderall.”

“Marijuana on its worst day, and the federal government now admits this, is far safer than alcohol or almost anything we find in our medicine cabinet.”

She went on, “Go ahead and arrest me. I'm one of those 100 million American adults, including a couple of guys who've been in the White House in the last decade, that admit to using marijuana. The government didn't stop me. Probably didn't stop anyone in this room.”

“The deterrent value of prohibition is not effective, especially when compared to the consequences of prohibition.”

“Parents are the anti-drug ... but ultimately they are going to go out there and make the choices they are going to make. And the government isn't going to stop them."

Now, a big reason I thought the night could produce sparks was the attendance of Carol Chambers, the 18th Judicial's District Attorney, to a free and "open to the public" event. A person whose stated purpose is to “increase sentences for criminals in her district,” and thus far, she has succeeded in that goal.

However, many of those she has locked up haven't hurt anyone. Some have simply ingested or voluntarily exchanged a substance for money, some substance that Mrs. Chambers is tasked with prosecuting to the fullest extent of the law by order of the State. So, I wanted to see how she explained herself.

Hopefully Mrs. Corry is right when she said, “She's a really smart woman, I know she's going to come around.”

Mrs. Chambers opened by stating, “If the majority of people want something, they can make it happen. You have the choice to have drugs legalized.”

Many Coloradans would consider her very first statement disingenuous, considering the citizens of Colorado added medical marijuana to the State Constitution in 2000, and continue to find themselves in court defending patients' right to seek relief from their illnesses and growers' rights to produce it, even more than a decade later.

She did admit, “I don't have a lot of personal experience with drugs, my family, have no members of my family, never tried them. Except prescription drugs.”

But she does understand both the long history, and subsequent misapplication, of the 'war on drugs', explaining, “I think we have to look at the history of the 'war on drugs,' because the history of the 'war on drugs' is the history of the 'war on crime' in general.”

“From 1960 to 1975, there was a huge increase of crime in the United States.”

“Based on what we had known at that point in time, I think there was not a great deal of faith in treatment or intervention and in the concept of rehabilitation. So the approach was we'll make those who could be treated, to punish them and to really be tough on crime in a way that really provided no change to the environment or change in the people who might be involved in drugs at the time.”

Mrs. Chambers says, “In the last 30 years, there has been remarkable change, in the service of medical therapy.”

Keep in mind, most of that "remarkable change" has been driven by the last 30 years of drug evolution, which includes such modern "scourges" as methamphetamine, ecstacy, LSD, and crack cocaine; whose very existences are a direct result of either their natural alternatives being targets of the government's 'war on drugs' or simply government creations themselves.

Self-described libertarian David K. Williams Jr. articulated very concisely that “The 'war on drugs' is just one more failed big-government program, that not only does it not help the problem, it makes it worse. It exacerbates the thing it is trying to cure, or the theme it is trying to address.”

And unlike the other panelists' ideological or anecdotal reasons for either supporting or fighting the 'war on drugs,' he boils it down to simple dollars and cents, certainly aided by his B.A. in economics and those that spend time and resources studying public policy.

Mr. Williams said, “Look at the economics of it, look at what it costs.”

“According to Cato Institute, the government spends 41.3 billion dollars on the 'drug war.' But the thing is, if they legalized drugs, the government would take in tax revenue of 46.7 billion dollars. Now, I don't know about you all, but that sounds like real money to me.”

And about the libertarian think-tank, “These guys [Cato] are not pot-smoking hippies. They are buttoned-down, wonks that study economics and study policy. It's what they do. They look at the numbers among other things, and they have concluded that the 'drug war' is not worth the money it costs.”

“Making drugs illegal is exactly the same thing as saying, I'm going to make the 'law of supply and demand' illegal.”

But that is exactly what drug warriors would like to do, if only they could make the 'law of supply and demand' illegal, then people would just do what they were told.

Mr. Gorman cited numbers of “8% or about 21.7 million are considered drug users. Which means they've used drugs in the last 30 days.”

He continued, “Working with drugs, I'd like to see it down to 6% or 5%. Where it is only twice of what it was in 1979.”

So, by his own admission, after 40 years of prohibition, it has not improved. In fact, the number of drug users has increased during that very same period.

Mr. Williams said, “We've all heard horror stories about how bad drugs are, the cost of human life, and breaking up families, about how people end up in jail, get sick and die, it's horrible. All of that is true. But all of that has occurred while drugs are illegal. Perhaps we should think of something else if we want to stop all of that.”

He spoke directly to Mrs. Chambers, Mr. Gorman, and others with the same opinions when he boiled it down.

“People who are pro-drug war say we just gotta do more, we need more. So the more they fail, the more they need.”

“So if you want to minimize drug abuse, if you want to minimize the profit motives, you want to minimize the aggressive market, we need to make it legal.”

However, the constant contention by the drug warriors on the panel was of the horrible “human cost” of drug addiction and how government action was necessary. Though, when they elaborated, both constantly went into the horrors of, and declining use of, “legal drugs” like alcohol and cigarettes.

Starkly contradicting the point they were attempting to make, that a “war” on illicit drugs is still necessary in order to decrease use.

Mr. Gorman said, “About 50% of our people are regular users of alcohol. We have almost as many shootings as all illegal drugs. Alcohol is relatively inexpensive; price. Readily available, very little perception of risk, and public attitude is totally accepting of alcohol. Now, you want to talk about damage, 11,000 killed because of alcohol and 3,000 from illegal drugs ... You see what happens when you legalize something? And you see what happens when you prohibit something?”

And Mrs. Chambers elaborated, “Almost 95% of domestic assault has alcohol associated with it.”

Seemingly forgetting at times that the reason for the discussion was the drugs that are already illegal, not the ones they simply disapprove of.

Mrs. Corry was very comfortable on stage and really brought some levity to a very hot room when she said, “One of the great things about this growing movement, and its inertia, to say 'we are reclaiming our rights as citizens, and our obligations as citizens of this great nation,' is that it can't be stopped. I hope that we can use this issue as a catalyst to rethink the broader role of government in our lives.”

Williams really nailed down my own thoughts on the issue at hand when he said, “The 'drug war' has really encroached on our ability to just live our lives.”

He continued, “In my opinion, we are conditioned, for whatever reason, it's sad. We don't look to each other first, we look to the government first. And that is a huge reason that we've got a lot of problems in this country.”

“Government can't do anything with out forcing you, or threatening force against you, if you don't comply with their laws. Is that a way to make society better? Or is it through persuasion, through leading by example? It's a lot harder to persuade someone, it's a lot harder to live by example.”

Now I have to say, by the end of the discussion, I was noticing some nodding to Mr. Williams' comments coming from a couple of unexpected people.

All in all, by the end of the night, not one person in attendance (polled beginning and after), left the room agreeing with continuing the quite obviously failed 'war on drugs.'

Now here are some random gems of the night:

Thomas J. Gorman:

“I've got four family members, three of my own sons that were addicted to drugs or alcohol. One with cocaine, one was marijuana, and one was strictly alcohol.”

“To say that there are more minorities in prison, you are going to have to convince me that that is the case. And in Colorado, the majority of drug traffickers, whether you like it or not, happen to be Mexican drug traffickers.”

“I believe in freedom too, I believe in freedom for the victims, that's freedom of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, without getting loaded ... we ought to start pushin' for sobriety in this country.”

Jessica Corry:

"We welcome the crazy radical libertarians. We welcome the Republicans. We welcome the racial minorities. We welcome the white dudes ... This is a movement that transcends political lines.”

“If at some point, when my kids are 16 or 19 or 85, and their friends roll 'em up to the porch, and they're loaded or drunk, and they don't know what it is or they're scared; I hope it's my daughter's friends, and not cops. Or not DEA agents.”

“I used to hear statistics about there being more minorities in prison, and I would say, 'Well, that's because they use drugs more than white people, duh'; I was so naïve. And then I worked in the Denver jail, and I saw the realities of the 'drug war' and those statistics are not sensationalized, at least based on my own personal experience.”

Carol Chambers:

“If you come in for the possession of marijuana, which by the way, is a class two petty offense for which you cannot go to prison ... for having less than an ounce, or 2 ounces, of marijuana. So, that's very reasonable ... you can't go to jail.”

“You know, I have been fortunate to be married to a libertarian ... One of the things you should understand, libertarians want less government, that means that you are free to use drugs. But they are not going to pay for your addiction. They won't pay for your healthcare.”

“I'm going to tell you, I don't think we have laws just to have laws, I think there is some rationale behind them.”

“I agree [with Jessica Corry], D.A.R.E. doesn't work, and that's been demonstrated.”

David K. Williams Jr.:

“Drugs are bad. OK? I'm against drugs, I don't use 'em. But I'm pro-freedom. And no matter what the question is, freedom is the answer.”

“The 'law of supply and demand' is a real, immutable, force. Supply and demand is just as real as the 'law of gravity'. Gravity kills people, you guys know that? People get hurt because of gravity, how many times have you fallen down? Gravity costs society. So I think if we want to stop the damage that gravity does, we need to make it illegal.”

“You'll see often a sheriff's department, or some type of law enforcement agency, they'll make a big bust ... that guy's competitor, of who was selling the drugs on the table, is like, 'Sweet, my profits just doubled, awesome, thank you guys for helping me out. Thank you for taking out my competition.'”

“'Drug warriors assume, basically, that the only reason normal people aren't 'hopped up on the goofballs' is because of that government force. They think that we are all waiting to go out there and get the meth ... I have a higher opinion of humanity than that.”

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