Art Way, who manages Colorado's branch of the Drug Policy Alliance, is currently hard at work on an intriguing piece of legislation set for introduction in the next session: a Good Samaritan bill intended to prevent those who call 911 when a friend is overdosing from being arrested for doing so.
And efforts to change marijuana laws are also on his to-do list.
Way, who's been in charge of the state's DPA affiliate since May, says the organization's mission is "drug policy based on science, compassion, human rights and health. We're trying to have a more health-centered approach to drug policy and lessen the criminalization that goes on when it comes to use -- especially minor possession.
"A lot of people call us legalizers, but the only thing we're on record in support of tax and legalization is marijuana. We break down our work into three areas. First is marijuana reform, which includes our previous work on medical marijuana. Second is broader criminal justice -- sentencing reform and so forth. And our third issue is harm reduction. We see it as a public safety/intervention strategy, where we take users who are near the chaotic end of drug misuse.
"There's a broad spectrum of drug use," he points out. "The vast majority of drug users are responsible people, believe it or not. But our decision-makers seem to base all their policy on the people at the far extremes. So we say to these people, 'We realize you may not be able to stop, or may not be willing to stop. Let's take you where you are in your life and try to lessen the harm drug abuse is causing in your life.'"
Advocacy for syringe exchanges of the sort recently approved in Denver is one example of the DPA's strategy. And Way sees the Good Samaritan bill as coming from a similar philosophical place. Here's how he describes it.
"In essence, this bill will provide a certain amount of immunity from prosecution and arrest of people who call 911 in the case of an overdose," he says. "Colorado already has a precedent for this when it comes to minors in possession of alcohol. If someone has had too much to drink and is going through alcohol intoxication, a minor who calls 911 won't be charged as a minor in possession."
Four states already have similar Good Samaritan laws on the books, including Washington. There, a recent study described in this DrugFree.org article noted that prior to the legislation's passage, 911 was called in only about half of documented overdose incidents -- and, Way adds, "those calls were sometimes made from payphones because concern about where the drugs came from and prosecution was put over the person's health. And in a situation like that, five minutes can mean a lot."
Such overdoses don't always involve heroin, Way stresses. "Prescription pill overdoses are epidemic these days," he says. "More people nationwide overdose on prescription pills than all the illicit drugs combined; this year, accidental overdose overtook car accidents as the number one cause of death."
Page down to read more about the bill and the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act. At this point, Way can't go into specifics about the bill: "We're in the drafting process," he maintains. "But in essence, whether it's prescription pills gained illegally or illegal drugs, we'd like to provide a certain immunity over what's usually considered minor drug possession in the state. If officers see evidence of distribution or something like that, they can still investigate and prosecute. But what we're really concerned with is paraphernalia, drug sharing -- various low-level stuff. Our state is already doing a good job of making sure people aren't serving a lot of time for minor drug possession; there have been some positive changes. We're just trying to keep the momentum going."
A DPA image illustrates its view of the forty-year drug war.
The legislation has already lined up a Senate sponsor: Irene Aguilar -- "the only MD under the dome," Way says.
When not pushing the Good Samaritan bill, Way will be focusing on the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act of 2012, which has attracted 130,000 signatures on petitions to put it on the ballot next year.
"Our whole approach is to lessen the impact that the criminal justice system plays in regard to drug policy in favor of a public-health approach -- and the marijuana issue kind of epitomizes why that's necessary," he allows. "By all accounts, it's one of the least addictive, least harmful substances, and yet it's classified as a Schedule 1 drug, which means the government claims it has no medical benefit and is one of the more dangerous and harmful substances there is.
"To be simple and plain, that's hypocrisy. Alcohol and tobacco cause much more public-health damage than marijuana does. So marijuana is the best place to address the politics and propaganda."
The bottom line for Way? "We're out to role back the last forty years of the drug war, because we're in a situation that's not sustainable. And this is a bipartisan issue. We're looking forward to building coalitions with Republicans and independents."
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And he sees the Good Samaritan bill as a good place to start.
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