WINCHESTER — After 49 years of sobriety and 46 years of helping addicts try to stay clean, Hughie McGee is convinced America’s “War on Drugs” is an abysmal failure.
McGee told about 30 people at Thursday’s monthly meeting of the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition that drug legalization would put drug dealers out of their often deadly business and drastically reduce jail and prison overcrowding by offering addicts treatment rather than imprisoning them. Like the prohibition on alcohol from 1920-1933, McGee said drug prohibition has been a disaster by making drug kingpins rich in the same way it did bootleggers like Al Capone.
“It is a problem that needs to be treated medically, not criminally. You cannot criminalize your way out of addiction,” said McGee, owner of the Rivendell Recovery Center in White Post in Clarke County. “We have created one of the largest illegal incomes and economies in the world.”
McGee said educating people about the dangers of drugs rather than fearmongering will reduce drug use. He noted how educating people about tobacco has drastically reduced cigarette smoking.
In 1965, before the government banned tobacco advertising on television, ads glamorizing cigarettes permeated the airwaves and 81% of adults smoked, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2017, the number was 14%, an all-time low.
In addition to advertising, the government in 1986 forced tobacco companies — who for decades denied the link between cigarettes and cancer — to put labels on cigarette packs warning that they cause cancer. And TV ads ran with former smokers who contracted cancer and emphysema, including some who had to have holes cut in their throats to breathe.
McGee said having strictly-regulated sales of drugs by corporations is a lot safer than having it done by street dealers, many of whom are addicts themselves.
“You’ll go to CVS and you’ll get what you want and the pharmaceutical companies will love us because they will get to sell drugs that they could never sell before,” he said. “And yet we will teach our children, we will teach everyone and we will do what we did with tobacco. Ninety percent of the people today are in jail for an alcohol or drug-related offense. Hey gang, jails don’t work. They don’t work a bit. So let’s get them into hospitals. Let’s get them into recovery solutions.”
McGee’s comments were prompted by a discussion of Portugal’s decriminalization of drugs in 2001. In response to high addiction and HIV rates, Portugal passed a law that calls for drug treatment or fines, rather than imprisonment, for people in possession of small amounts of drugs including cocaine, heroin and marijuana.
There is evidence the law has worked. A 2015 study by the European Monitoring Centre For Drugs and Drug Addiction found Portugal had the second-lowest rate of fatal drug overdoses in the 28-member European Union and it had one of the the lower rates for cocaine and heroin use among European countries.
Andrea Wright, a drug counselor who works with local addicts, has visited Portugal a few times, most recently in 2017, and her master’s dissertation for the University of Sheffield in 2013-14 was on the stigmatic effects of criminalizing drug use. In 2015, she studied Portugal’s decriminalization while earning a joint degree from a Portuguese business school and the Monitoring Centre.
Wright told coalition members that by treating addiction as a health problem rather than a criminal matter, the stigma of drug use has been removed and drug use and crime rates have decreased. She said worries that Portugal would become a tourist destination for drug use proved to be unfounded.
Wright said studies have shown drug use is based on cultural and social attitudes and economic trends rather than how punitive a nation’s drug laws are, something the Portuguese have recognized. She said the decriminalization law incorporates the principals of Article 25 of the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights which says everyone is entitled to adequate medical care.
“Addiction to me is a human rights issue,” Wright said. “You’re a human being, not an addict.”
The discussion also included marijuana legalization and Virginia recording 28,666 marijuana arrests in 2018, according to the state police annual crime report. The arrests were 59% of the 47,548 overall drug arrests, the highest rate by far. The number was about triple the marijuana arrests in 1999 and occurred at a time when 11 states have legalized recreational marijuana use and 33 states have legalized medical marijuana use.
Matthew Occhuizzo, Winchester assistant commonwealth’s attorney and a member of Northwestern Regional Adult Drug Treatment Court team, said the marijuana arrests numbers can be deceiving. He noted many of the people charged with marijuana possession also were charged with possessing other drugs such as cocaine and heroin. Occhuizzo said for decriminalization and legalization to work, substantial amounts of money would have to be spent on drug treatment, as Portugal did.
“It’s more complicated than just taking away the laws and things get better,” he said. “Sometimes, getting thrown into the legal system is the catalyst for someone to seek treatment and to change their life.”
Dr. Colin M. Greene, Lord Fairfax Health District director, said it could take decades to measure the effect of marijuana legalization in other states and Virginia lawmakers should move slowly in legalization efforts.
“I would hope that Virginia might sit back and allow the laboratories of the other states to show their results and see what happens to education levels and traffic accident levels and whatever else you might see,” he said. “The United States and Portugal are very different societies and different cultures. So what happens in Portugal will not necessarily happen here and vice versa. That said, it doesn’t mean it can’t be looked at, or parts of it. We don’t have to take the whole program.”