It was a familiar scene, a news conference called by a group named Join Together Northern Nevada to raise awareness of the dangers of drug use. This one, in the lobby of Reno City Hall on Nov. 18, dealt with heroin.
In May 2007, it was meth and the release of a video, “Crystal Darkness,” which had been re-edited to tailor it to Nevada, something that was happening in many states as part of a national campaign.
But like a Laurel and Hardy scene in which one bump under the sheet is pushed down only to have another one pop up in a different place, each burst of anti-drug awareness publicity simply reduces use of one drug and leads to a rise in use of another. Meth use is down, heroin is up.
At the Reno City Hall event, there were elected officials, drug-use victims, publicists, drug program administrators, police officers—everything except physicians. There were no health care professionals at an event about a health problem.
“Of course not,” said Reno and Las Vegas physician Stephen Frye, a former Nevada School of Medicine faculty member, who was interviewed after the news conference. “You want politicians or police there to tell us how prison is so wonderful. You don’t want to ask a doctor. It’s been treated as a criminal justice matter instead of a health care matter.”
There was no missing the strong emotions in the room at the news conference. Mayor Bob Cashell broke down crying when he discussed the heroin ordeal experienced by his son and their family. “No parent knows what to do,” Cashell said. “We didn’t know. Nancy and I didn’t have a clue. But it would have been so good to have a group like this that could tell us or point out signs of what was going on.”
The family of a young woman who died while using heroin was present and talked about their experiences.
But there were questions asked from the audience that no one was in a position to answer. One woman said when her son had a heroin problem, one of the reasons he waited too long to seek help was that he and his friends were scared to bring himself to the attention of authorities. “If my son’s friends were not afraid, he would be alive today,” she said.
She was given assurances by police spokespeople who were present that he would have been treated sympathetically, and the mayor said, “When they [police] understand the situation, they work with us.” Nevertheless, as long as drug use remains illegal, assurances at a drug awareness news conference cannot necessarily be cashed at a jail or in court. After the event was over, Frye was contacted and said there is a better solution in other nations where drugs are legal: “The people that are with them if they crash call 911, and they are treated. They’re not afraid to call because of illegality.” That simple policy choice was never mentioned at the Reno news conference.
As for the families who are damaged by drug use, Frye said, “The fact is this drug war is deadly and devastating to our children.”
But no one was present at the City Hall event to provide those perspectives, and subsequent news coverage did not go beyond those present at the event for views that go beyond enforcement and treatment to prevention.
The event took place amid plenty of evidence of the continuing ineffectiveness of the war on drugs.
• Oct. 18, 2010: Dayton and Carson City drug bust, marijuana, meth and cocaine taken, 10 arrested.
• Oct. 29, 2010: Truckee drug bust, marijuana and paraphernalia taken, three arrested, one of them a Nevadan.
• Nov. 6, 2010: Bi-state drug bust, oxycordone taken, 27 Nevadans and Alaskans arrested.
• Nov. 8, 2010: Drug bust at Legacy High School in Clark County; heroin taken, one student arrested.
In all likelihood, if this news conference had been held a year ago, a different set of busts could have been cited and if one is held a year from now there will be still another set. “I will tell you that prohibition of drugs is an incredible failure,” Frye said. “After decades of prohibition, the United States has 60 percent of the world’s drug use, which means that our drug war has created a monumental failure. The drug war kills more people than drugs.”
Mayor Cashell said he wasn’t altogether happy himself at the lack of medical or other perspectives at the City Hall news conference. “I’m not sure they were invited or not invited,” he said, adding that when he saw the lineup he had his staff call around to try to find a health care professional. He also said he wants to hear other perspectives. “We intend to bring all of those people in.”
Frye said that in Las Vegas he finds more receptiveness to anti-prohibition views. “The mayor opposes prohibition, [newspaper executive] Tom Mitchell opposes it, so people get to hear that view.” He also said that reporters there seek out different views.
The exclusion of health care perspectives in drug prohibition is an old story. In 1876, when the nation’s first anti-drug law was enacted in Virginia City, it was a response to inflammatory news coverage of Chinese opium dens that did not include information from physicians on the drug’s properties. In 1937, when Congress outlawed marijuana, the vote came after the floor leader of the bill lied to congressmembers, telling them that the American Medical Association supported the prohibition. He withheld information about the AMA’s actual objections to outlawing what was then a prescription medicine.
Frye said the only nations that have shown progress in reducing drug use are those that have taken an approach different from that of the United States.
“In Portugal, AIDS is down, hepatitis is down, drug use is down. In Switzerland, where on the day Obama was elected the Swiss public voted for free clean needles and free heroin at a cost of a couple of bucks a day, more than three-quarters of the people cleaned up their act. The result was less drug use, not more.”
Mexico, on the other hand, “has been following our example, and has a huge drug problem.”
Kevin Quint of Join Together Northern Nevada, the sponsor of the City Hall news conference, said it was meant to be an awareness event, not a dialogue. He also said his group has not been engaged with anti-prohibition representatives.
“We haven’t done anything together,” he said. “We’d sure be happy to talk to them if they want to talk to me. It’s not really part of our program. Our function is not really to advocate for or against legalization, though we have a position on marijuana.”
The group’s marijuana stance is that it “not be legalized for recreational use,” he said.
He said a dialogue with anti-prohibitionists is “not a part of our conversations. If there’s some kind of community dialogue we can have, I’m willing, but I don’t want to have some kind of war.” He added that when, several years ago, he was involved in those kinds of dialogues, “My experience is that they devolve into negativity.”