Telling U.S. Senators What They Need To Hear About Ending The Drug War

The U.S. flag flies at half-staff over the U.S. Capitol later in the day following the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. histor
The U.S. flag flies at half-staff over the U.S. Capitol later in the day following the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida in Washington June 12, 2016. REUTERS/James Lawler Duggan

I wasn't sure at first what to make of the invitation to testify from Senator Ron Johnson, the Tea Party Republican from Wisconsin who chairs the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Some colleagues thought it was basically a set-up: a Republican senator in a tough battle for re-election this fall looking for an opportunity to dump on "the legalizers" and blame America's opioid epidemic on drug policy reformers. But others suspected that Johnson's libertarian streak made him sympathetic to anti-prohibitionist perspectives, and that he was sincerely curious to hear new ideas. That latter view turned out to be right.

I must admit that I've been waiting a long time to tell U.S. Senators exactly what I think about drug policy. This roundtable provided the perfect opportunity - to explain why the drug war has been such a monumental disaster for the country and the world, to make the analogies to alcohol Prohibition, and to frame reform in terms of the need to reduce the role of criminalization and criminal justice in drug control as much as possible while advancing public health and safety.

But more than that, it afforded abundant opportunities not just to present the evidence but also to reason with the Senators and teach them about drugs and drug policy. Most of their questions were about marijuana and opioids, allowing me to point to the growing evidence that easy access to medical marijuana reduces opioid misuse and overdoses, and that legal regulation of marijuana was resulting in less crime than before. I got to talk about why people get addicted to heroin and why heroin maintenance programs make so much sense. (It helped, of course, that my own testimony was preceded by that of Scott MacDonald, a Canadian physician working with the heroin (and hydromorphone) maintenance research project, SALOME, in Vancouver.) And I stressed repeatedly that the best investment Congress could make in responding to the opioid epidemic, and in particular the recent, dramatic increase in fentanyl-related deaths, would be to fund an army of researchers to find out what was really going on - before they legislated any new punishments or other costly interventions.

The ranking Democrat, Delaware Senator Tom Carper, was particularly curious about the lessons to be learned from successful anti-cigarette campaigns. Most heroin addicts, I told him, say that cigarettes are tougher to quit than heroin - yet roughly half of all people who were addicted to cigarettes no longer smoke. That monumental success, I pointed out, had been accomplished entirely through public education, higher taxation and effective regulation -- without a single cigarette consumer being given a criminal record or sent to a "tobacco court." The look in the eyes of Senator Carper and his colleagues suggested they had never before considered that point, or its implications. (Tune in from 2:00:50 - 2:02:40)

Part of what made the roundtable feel surreal was that Senators Johnson and Carper had invited three proponents of reform and just one drug war apologist to testify. Jousting with David Murray, loyal sidekick to former drug czar John Walters, proved enjoyable (you can watch this spirited exchange by tuning in here from 1:26:09 - 1:27:30), as did Senator Johnson's evident impatience with Murray's comments, as if he'd heard it all before and no longer bought it.

The highlight for me of the entire session came in response to a question about drug courts by the Republican Senator, Kelly Ayotte, to the police chief of Arlington, Massachusetts, Frederick Ryan. "The challenge there, Senator, is when you push the button for the criminal justice system, it's incredibly complex and difficult to reverse," he responded. "You take somebody suffering from a substance use disorder and put them into a complex criminal justice system - we're finding it creates even more challenges." (Tune in from 1:32:00 - 1:32:25)

I never realized that testifying before Congress could be so much fun! Dysfunctionality on Capitol Hill may be nearing historic highs, with federal legislators incapable of enacting even modest reforms on which a majority agree, but that Senate roundtable provided a striking indication that the multi-decade, bipartisan ban on reform-minded drug policy ideas may at last be lifting in the nation's capital.

Ethan Nadelmann is the founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.