'The war on drugs is over. And we lost' -- Leonard Campanello, the police chief of Gloucester, Mass.
BY TOM O’CONNELL
Keely Gilmour had just robbed the last pay station of the night and was getting ready to pull away from a New Mexico state park when she saw headlights in her mirror. All she could do was wait and watch as the ranger pulled up behind her.
He questioned her and was about to let her go when he spotted her realistic-looking BB gun. The ranger held her at gunpoint and called for backup. The jig was up, and the pretty young woman with a longtime meth habit faced a lot of tough choices and hard federal time.
“We used to go to Elephant Butte, all over the state, and rob pay stations,” she said, referring to the boxes campers put their camping fee in. “We’d get $300 out of each one. I’ve done everything from check fraud to breaking into cars. Every charge I’ve had in my life has been drug related.”
The Albuquerque native started dabbling in meth as a teen in 1994, moved in with a meth cook in 2007, then started shooting it in 2009.
Now her habit, her freedom and her kids’ futures were all on the line. She knew from experience that she was about to enter a criminal justice cycle that never wants to let you go.
Last year, Santa Fe became the second city in the country, after Seattle, to roll out a program called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) to keep people like Keely out of the criminal justice system as they battle addiction. The program takes a health-care approach to drugs rather than the standard lock-’em-up approach that, as often as not, leads to relapse and recidivism.
The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners. That startling reality has officials, experts and politicians – conservative and liberal – rethinking the policies that typically keep drug users like Keely in an unforgiving criminal justice grind.
Nancy Gertner, a former Massachusetts U.S. district judge, speaking recently about being constrained by mandatory minimum sentences, compared our current system to the post-World War I Treaty of Versailles or Reconstruction after the Civil War – agreements that ensured horrible outcomes for the losers.
Now, Santa Fe has joined the LEAD effort, which seeks to divert hard-drug reoffenders from the criminal justice system and to social services to help with basic necessities and set them on a path back to something like normal. Santa Fe’s program recently had 34 “clients” whose average age was 25. A third city, Albany, N.Y., recently announced it will implement LEAD.
“Drug policy is not something that should be political. This is about saving lives,” said Angela R. “Spence” Pacheco, the Santa Fe district attorney who helped spearhead LEAD there with help from the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance.
The Drug Policy Alliance approached Pacheco with the idea of a pre-booking program for drug offenders. Pacheco’s interest was piqued. She ordered a cost-benefit analysis that found the program offered a potential long-term savings to taxpayers of about 53 percent over traditional policing.
Constantly jailing and adjudicating an offender was projected to cost $129,000 over 10 years, which doesn’t include various other social costs. Taxpayers would foot a bill of just $69,000 over 10 years for an individual in the LEAD program.
“What we’ve learned is you can put people in jail over and over, and they reoffend. We truly believe [LEAD] will help solve the problem,” said Andrea Dobyns, a spokesperson for the Santa Fe Police Department who has since resigned. “Sometimes you have to approach a problem differently,” Dobyns said.
Getting law enforcers to think “differently” is the biggest challenge that reformers face. “Traditional officers think, ‘You’ve committed a crime, you get arrested,” Dobyns said.
There has been resistance in Santa Fe to LEAD, Dobyns said, but as more cops are trained in it, the more positively it has been viewed departmentwide.
“We had to really sell the program,” Dobyns said. “Once they attended training, they really understood the value of the program, and they jumped onboard.”
For many law enforcement and other government officials, arresting low-level drug offenders is just about “a paycheck,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance.
Piper said drug warriors are digging in their heels and insisting that the war against illegal intoxicants must go on – and that it’s for Americans’ own good.
“Their heart is not really in it,” he said. “They would arrest people for wearing a brown belt with black shoes if there was a federal grant in it for them.”
None of the Albuquerque-area law enforcement spokespeople reached for comment on LEAD had heard of it. That may be indicative of the interest that traditional law enforcers have in maintaining the status quo.
One was even extremely hostile. Tanner Tixier, the public information officer at the Albuquerque Police Department, angrily demanded to know, “If [LEAD] is so progressive, why isn’t it everywhere?”
Tixier’s counterpart at the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office, Aaron Williamson, was not as hostile to the idea, with which he was unfamiliar. He later said Bernalillo County Sheriff Manual Gonzales was familiar with LEAD but had not yet looked deeply into it.
“The war on drugs is over. And we lost,” Leonard Campanello, the police chief of Gloucester, Mass., said in a recent interview. “There is no way we can arrest our way out of this. … We’ve been fighting it for 50 years, and the only thing that has happened is heroin has become cheaper and more people are dying.” After several local heroin deaths, Campanello spearheaded a LEAD-style program.
“Our drug policies are by far more harmful to society than drug use or abuse could ever be,” said Neill Franklin, a former Baltimore cop who heads up the District of Columbia’s version of LEAD. “The number of deaths that result from the policies are at a level we can’t accurately calculate.”
Long before he retired from 33 years of policing, Franklin was a believer in traditional enforcement of drug policies. So he was instinctually resistant when Baltimore started a needle exchange program in the 1980s to combat a surge in HIV infections.
The program was a success, he said, “and the number of new [HIV] cases dramatically reduced. I myself was shocked to see the success of that program. Many people resist such programs because of emotion, their personal feelings of morality. But you should not legislate morality. Our policies should be about saving lives.”
Franklin later was assigned to Baltimore’s needle exchange board, perhaps because he had lost a cousin to a heroin overdose. “That’s when I personally got my first little bit of insight into doing something differently other than the law enforcement response,” he said.
Ten years later, in 2000, a tragic event shattered any remaining confidence Franklin may have had in traditional drug policies. His close friend was on an FBI undercover cocaine buy when something went wrong. The seller decided to rip him off and put a bullet in his head at point-blank range.
“That was the straw on my camel’s back,” Franklin said. “It caused me to stop and think about the violence from these policies, the gangs, crews, street corner dealers, the whole shebang.”
Franklin questions how the government decides which drugs to make illegal, because the numbers show that legal drugs such as alcohol, tobacco and painkillers kill far more Americans than illegal drugs do.
“We don’t dare travel down that road to prohibit alcohol and tobacco, so why do we treat someone so different who’s addicted to heroin than addicted to alcohol?” he asked.
“Why is that? A lot of it is about the media, the conversations we’ve had over the past four or five decades about hard drugs. It’s about the brainwashing we’ve done. We’ve been very successful creating a message that people who use these drugs are bad, immoral people. We’ve been bombarded by this negative messaging.
“If you can relieve yourself from that messaging and instead look at it as a substance that alters your state of being, like alcohol, then you begin to realize we shouldn’t be prohibiting, we should be regulating, providing treatment.”
Reformers say prohibition for anything never works. They cite the huge teen pregnancy numbers in areas that offer abstinence-only sex education, and, of course, alcohol prohibition in the 1920s.
Perhaps the best recent example of how legislating morality can backfire disastrously comes out of Indiana. State officials noticed an explosion in HIV and hepatitis cases related to IV drug use in Scott County. They saw a rise from three cases between 2009 and 2013 to 142 cases in 2015. Republican Gov. Mike Pence begrudgingly signed a bill allowing needle exchange in an attempt to staunch infections in the largely rural community.
“Conservative, rural states adopting syringe programs is a game changer,” the Drug Policy Alliance’s Bill Piper said at the time. “There’s an opportunity here for the U.S. to join the rest of the developed world in making sterile syringes widely available to stamp out deadly diseases.”
Keely Gilmour, who has worked her way out of her addiction with help from her family, said you can’t get addicts to stop using unless they want to stop. “With meth, it doesn’t matter what you do to users, they’re not going to get clean unless they want to,” she said. “You have to keep hitting bottom, hitting bottom ’til you realize it’s not you, it’s the drug.”
Keely was able to avoid prison after her bust last year. She kicked meth and now works her family’s shop. She said she’s fortunate to have a social safety net.
Maintaining a drug habit isn’t cheap, so users “have to steal and rob and break into houses to support their habit,” she said. “With supporting your habit comes the crime. And if you get caught with the littlest amount of drugs, you go to jail, and you’re a felon, and you can’t get a job or place to live. When you get out, all you know are drug addicts, so all you can do is revert back to crime.
“It’s like a revolving door.”
Tom O’Connell is an Albuquerque freelance writer and editor.