John Walters, the head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy for the Bush Administration, is visiting New Mexico today. Advocates for more substance abuse treatment services in New Mexico hope that he will support the priorities of New Mexicans.
According to a recent poll conducted by Research & Polling, Inc., 67 percent of New Mexico voters believe that too many tax dollars are spent keeping non-violent drug offenders in jail for a mandatory period of time when the money could be better spent on education and treatment.
"We hope that Mr. Walters is here to support New Mexico as we work to increase the availability of good substance abuse treatment services," said Nancy Koenigsberg, Legal Director of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. "Treatment works. It costs much less than putting people in prison, and it is the only way to break the vicious cycle of addiction."
"Incarcerating parents for nonviolent drug offenses is destroying families in New Mexico, "said Angie Vachio, Executive Director of Peanut Butter and Jelly Services, Inc., a treatment provider in Albuquerque. "Our children deserve more. I hope that Mr. Walters is here to support the reform that New Mexicans need."
A study by the RAND Corporation found that every additional dollar invested in substance abuse treatment saves taxpayers $7.46 in societal costs (crime, violence, loss of productivity, etc.) This same study found that additional law enforcement efforts cost 15 times as much as treatment to achieve the same reduction in societal costs. In 1999, the New Mexico Corrections Department housed 5,127 inmates (not including city and county jails), of which eighty-seven percent were diagnosed with substance misuse disorders.
Walters' nomination as drug czar in the fall of 2001 was opposed by many civil rights and treatment groups. A letter from the National Council of La Raza, the NAACP, the National Black Police Association, and National Education Association, and others asked U.S. Senators to vote against his nomination, saying that his "record is one of extreme insensitivity to the problems facing African Americans and Latinos." The Betty Ford Center expressed concern that "Mr. Walters may not have the confidence in the treatment and prevention strategies that . . . are necessary for the creation and implementation of a balanced and thoughtful approach to U.S. drug policy."
"It's up to us to ensure that our federal drug czar works with us to meet the needs of all our communities, and lives up to its commitment of increasing resources for effective substance abuse treatment and drug prevention services for everyone," said Antionette Tellez-Humble, director of the New Mexico Drug Policy Project in Santa Fe. "I hope that he will support New Mexico's priorities, and not try to substitute his own."
During the 2003 legislative session in New Mexico, which began yesterday, two new drug policy reform bills will be introduced in response to the desires of the citizens of New Mexico. One bill will focus on allowing for drug treatment instead of incarceration for first- and second-time nonviolent drug possession offenders. The second proposed drug policy reform bill would allow access to medical marijuana for those who are suffering from certain debilitating illnesses, such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, glaucoma and diseases with neuromuscular spasticity.
"New Mexico has an opportunity to make a real difference this year," said Tellez-Humble. "Republicans and Democrats agree that our current drug policies are not working, and that these two bills offer promising alternatives to help our families and communities."
The Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act, to be introduced this year, would address these issues by providing treatment instead of incarceration for first and second-time nonviolent drug offenders, at a judge's discretion. This bill would reduce drug-related crime, preserving jail and prison space for violent offenders. Arizona passed a similar law in 1996. According to the Arizona Supreme Court, taxpayers saved $6.7 million in 1999, and 77.5% of drug possession probationers who had received treatment tested negative for drug use after the program. California also passed a similar law -- Proposition 36 -- in 2000. According to the California state Legislative Analyst's office, state taxpayers are expected to save $250 million a year as a result of the new law.
The second bill to be introduced this year is the Lynn Pierson Compassionate Use Act. For many suffering patients, like the late Lynn Pierson, marijuana relieves the symptoms of cancer, AIDS, and other serious diseases when other medications do not help. When taken as medicine, marijuana can help with nausea reduction, appetite enhancement and pain relief. According to the Research & Polling poll, 81% of New Mexico voters support making medical marijuana available to such patients.
"Medical marijuana helps keep food down," said Hank Tafoya, an HIV patient and an AIDS/HIV educator from Taos. "Medicine helps me stay well to help my family. They don't carry the burden of my rent or other bills if I can work. Staying well helps me give back to my community."
The Lynn Pierson Compassionate Use Act would allow patients in pain to have access to medical marijuana through an independent board's certification and doctor's recommendation. Unlike a medical marijuana bill considered by the Legislature last year, it does not create a state distribution system; instead, the bill is in line with the policies of nine other states that have allowed medical marijuana for seriously ill patients, including Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.
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For more information about New Mexico's 2003 drug policy reform bills, and to stay updated throughout the session, please visit www.improvenewmexico.org