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Rehabilitate — don’t incarcerate

Reforming the Commonwealth’s ‘war on drugs’

In Steven Soderbergh’s movie Traffic, Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), the newly appointed national drug czar, asks General Arturo Salazar (Tomas Milian), a Mexican military official, what his country is doing to cut the demand for drugs. Salazar answers that addicts eventually overdose and die — which takes care of the problem. In other words, there is no policy.

It’s not quite art imitating life, but it’s close. Drug policy in this country has, for several decades, focused primarily on busting drug traffickers in an effort to cut the supply of illegal narcotics flowing into the United States. Measures to deal with demand — by helping drug addicts get clean, for instance — haven’t progressed much further than Nancy Reagan’s advice to “Just Say No.” A recent study by Brandeis University on the costs of drug abuse and rehabilitation shows that only 12 percent of the billions of dollars spent fighting the drug war goes toward drug-prevention programs, while just 18 percent is spent treating addicts.

This policy is failing. Heroin and cocaine are easier to get today than they were 20 years ago. And they’re cheaper and more potent. Meanwhile, approximately half of all inmates in federal prisons are incarcerated on drug offenses. It’s long past time for us to shift our priorities.

In Massachusetts, a state senator from Methuen is trying to do just that. James P. Jajuga, a Democrat and former State Police investigator who spent 19 years working in the drug unit, announced last week that he will file a comprehensive drug-policy bill within the next few months that will “truly address” the prevention and treatment of drug addiction. “I believe if we focus more on intervention and drug treatment we’re going to have fewer individuals incarcerated, saving the state substantial sums of money,” he says. Right now it costs about $6500 to treat a drug offender and roughly $25,000 to incarcerate one. (It should be noted that under current mandatory-minimum sentencing guidelines, nonviolent drug offenders who are arrested for possession with intent to distribute are given an additional two years if the crime occurred in a school zone — even if the arrest took place during school vacation or at midnight. In some parts of Boston, it’s difficult to find an area that’s not in a school zone. Under the new guidelines being debated on Beacon Hill, judges will have the discretion to decide whether to tack on the additional two years.)

Jajuga is a strong advocate of the death penalty who’s been a long-time proponent of traditional law-and-order measures — though he has supported clean-needle-exchange programs for years. Last fall he worked with county prosecutors to defeat a ballot initiative that would have directed assets seized during drug busts to rehabilitation and treatment programs. He says that his opposition to the measure, which the Phoenix editorialized in favor of, was based not necessarily on ideology, but on methodology. For instance, the initiative would not have provided for consistent across-the-board drug-treatment funding. “You don’t know how much [money] you’re going to seize,” he says. “One county could seize hundreds of thousands of dollars and another could seize minuscule amounts.” These inconsistencies, he notes, make it hard to fund “effective programs.” The bottom line? “If you’re going to get serious about this problem, we’ve got to put more money in treatment.”

Jajuga’s thoughtful approach is likely to spark impassioned debate at the State House. It’s impossible to say what chances his yet-to-be-written bill will have — but Jajuga’s philosophical switch on drug policy comes at a time when others on Beacon Hill are rethinking the way we deal with drugs.

Six bills have been filed in the state legislature to amend state laws regulating marijuana. One calls for outright legalization, three would make possession of small amounts of the drug a civil — not criminal — offense, and two seek approval of the medical use of marijuana. In some cases, sponsoring legislators are answering the call from their communities. State Representative Shirley A. Gomes, a Republican from Cape Cod who represents Provincetown, responded to that community’s request, via a nonbinding local referendum, to file a bill that would legalize the medical use of marijuana. State Senator Charles Shannon, a former Winchester police officer, backed a bill that would make possession of less than an ounce of marijuana (about four or five joints) a civil offense after voters in his district passed a nonbinding local referendum last November asking him to support such a measure. Shannon not only sponsored the law but took the idea a step further — he wants to see it retroactive, so that anyone with a criminal record for having possessed an ounce or less of pot in the past 20 to 25 years will see the slate wiped clean. “I just think it’s in our best interests as a society to look at it in a different light now,” he says. It makes little sense to penalize people for drug possession that “everybody knows was just for personal use,” he says. “It wasn’t like they were drug running.”

Both Jajuga and Shannon say their former colleagues in law enforcement have accused them of going soft on criminals, although both are careful to note that strict sanctions for the distribution of drugs remain crucial weapons. Indeed, they insist that they haven’t abandoned the war on drugs. They just want it to be fought a different way — a way that might actually make a difference.

“What we’re doing isn’t working,” Jajuga says. “We’ve got a revolving-door criminal policy.”

Contact House Speaker Tom Finneran’s office at (617) 727-3600 and Senate president Tom Birmingham’s office at (617) 722-1500 (e-mail: to let them know you support common-sense approaches to drug policies. Contact your local representative and senator to do the same; you can find a complete listing on the Web at

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Issue Date: March 15-22, 2001

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