Freshman students debate drug laws

Part 2 of a 2 part story
Freshman students in Christopher Carey’s class engaged in a heated debate on Thursday surrounding the issue of drug reforms.

The “Faith and Reason” Freshman Inquiry class heard from ACLU Executive Director David Fidanque on Tuesday about the benefits of drug legalization. On Thursday, Carey invited Erin Olson of the district attorney’s office to address the dangers and practical issues related to the decriminalization of currently illegal drugs.

Olson, who works in the district attorney’s drug unit, began by explaining steps that Portland has taken to fight the use of drugs, including the “Drug Free Zone” downtown. According to Olson, in Downtown/Old Town, if a person is arrested for any drug transaction, or the police have probable cause to suspect a drug transaction has taken place, that person can be excluded from the area for 90 days. If a conviction follows, this exclusion is extended to one year.

“Merchants love the drug free zone, because it gives them a tool to deal with the ugly things they see everyday,” she said. Olson said that merchants in that area are frequently exposed to addicts using drugs in close proximity of their establishments, and are often the victims of drug-related crimes.

Because crime is very often the product of drug use, Olson advocated working with existing drug laws. She stated, however, that the most effective road to change is treatment. “We have to attack the addiction” more fiercely than the suppliers, she said. Olson also described the city’s STOP (Services Training Officers and Prosecutors) program, under which misdemeanor offenses can be responded to with treatment, including acupuncture, drug treatment and counseling, while continuing to hold criminals accountable to the courts.

“The answer is not to legalize these drugs. Without some sort of criminal drug laws, we would be much worse off,” she said, projecting that the problem would grow to be “insurmountable.”

The students, however, did not seem to buy what Olson was selling. When asked how many believed that the drug problem would be more manageable if drugs were legalized, nearly half the class raised their hands. One of the more vocal students, Maude Bowman, told Olson, “Part of the appeal is the fact that it is illegal.”

Another student, Gabriella Bavieger-Wild, responded that the fact that drugs are illegal directly causes more deaths than if they were legal, citing the possibility of regulation if drugs came under the supervision of the state.

Bavieger-Wild also expressed her opinion that if drugs were legal, addicts may be more likely to seek treatment, especially, she said, if the legalization were coupled with more education on the effects of drugs.

Olson pointed out to the class that if drugs were legalized, they would not only be regulated, but they would be more readily available and far less expensive. “Don’t you think more people would begin to use drugs?” she asked.

“Yes, more people would be doing drugs,” Paul Drechsler responded. “but it would force the black market to crumble, drugs would be cleaner and safer, and I think people would be more likely to seek treatment.”

Some students agreed with Olson’s point, supporting drug laws. Joseph Neeld used an example of an unlocked bike on the street. Neeld contended that an honest person knows the bike is not secure, but chooses not to steal the bike because it is illegal; a criminal, however, sees that as a golden opportunity because there is no respect for the law.

“Laws keep an honest man honest,” he said. “There are people who are deterred by laws.”Elizabeth Keller took the argument to a different level, introducing the reality of addiction. “We aren’t talking about personal choice like we have personal choice. If, after the first time somebody does heroin, they’re addicted, that’s not personal choice.”

Keller also stated that regulating drugs would not make them non-addictive and, therefore, would not necessarily reduce crime. “They’re still going to be addicts. Addicts still need money for drugs.”Shawn Roush said, “This society has an issue with personal accountability,” and asked Olson what was wrong with one person “smoking a bowl in their living room.”

Olson told the class that she believes the state has an interest in helping addicts and those affected by addicts. “These are not effective members of society,” she said. “And it is very rare that the situation is just someone at home smoking out of a bong.”

Olson reminded the class that most crimes associated with drugs are not “victimless” even in a person’s own home. “Nine out of 10 cases we see, where a person is doing drugs in their own home, involve children,” she said.

“We have to pass laws that have general application,” Olson said.

“We deal with people’s families, people with meth labs and four kids, and our society ends up dealing with those kids in one way or another.” Olson said, referring to Schedule One and Two drugs like heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine. “This is not alcohol we are talking about ���� these drugs affect you much differently than even marijuana. People who use these drugs can be erratic and irrational, and sometimes dangerous.”

In the end, Olson told the class that they are probably indicative of our society as a whole, especially in the Northwest. “But, I think the state has an interest in making people productive citizens, making sure they don’t hurt themselves or anyone else,” she said.