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Some NH police say drug war not lost, but tactics may need to change

New Hampshire Union Leader

July 02. 2011 11:59PM

Law-enforcement officials in Laconia, Concord, Derry and Nashua reject an international commission's conclusion that the 'war on drugs'' has failed, but suggest tactics might need some tweaking.

'Some of the minimum sentences are out of whack,' said Laconia police Capt. William Cleary. 'There are probably three or four small changes I'd like to see. There are times when people aren't doing as much time as you might think they should.'

Sgt. Roger Baker, supervisor of the Concord Police Department's Drug Enforcement Unit, said, 'This isn't about getting someone the most jail time they can for their offense. Sometimes going to a treatment program is a very viable option. Sometimes you do go to jail, for sure, but that's not always the best option.'

The Global Commission on Drug Policy issued a report last month calling on government officials worldwide to begin efforts to decriminalize the use of drugs, especially marijuana, to curb the power of organized crime and dealer networks. It concluded that criminalization measures have not reduced drug use and have resulted in severe consequences for individuals.

The 19-member commission includes former presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Colombia; Kofi Annan, former U.N. secretary-general; George P. Schultz, former Cabinet member in the Reagan and Nixon administrations; Paul Volcker, former Federal Reserve chairman; and Richard Branson, British billionaire. Its report takes a hard stance on the 40-year-old U.S. drug policy.

'Political leaders and public figures should have the courage to articulate publicly what many of them acknowledge privately: that the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that repressive strategies will not solve the drug problem and that the war on drugs has not, and cannot, be won,' the report states.

'I wouldn't agree with that statement,' said Lt. Mark Carignan of the Nashua Police Department's drug enforcement unit. 'I wouldn't call it a failure. It's an ongoing battle. We don't target the local users, we target up the chain to get the distributors, those that are bringing it into the community.'

'When you call it a 'drug war,' that implies to people that it's a fight you can win,' said Derry police Capt. Vern Thomas. 'Whenever you work at taking one drug off the streets, drug users find another one to abuse. But should we continue to go after those that abuse drugs and break the law by using illegal drugs? Absolutely, we should.'

The state Attorney General's Office would not comment on the report's declaration of defeat, but did touch on related matters.

'To the extent that the report discusses both educational and treatment goals, it all starts with an educational component,'' Assistant Attorney General Jane Young said. 'But to the extent that laws are broken, on the state and federal level, we need to have the ability to prosecute accordingly, and we will.'

Young points to statistics from the state's Drug Task Force over the last three years as evidence that, locally, the fight against drug use is working.

In 2008, the task force investigated 938 cases and arrested 154 people. Officers seized 43 weapons, 3.1 pounds of cocaine, 189.1 grams of crack cocaine, and 1,197 pharmaceuticals. Those numbers jumped to 1,194 cases in 2009, with 136 arrests and 33 weapons seized along with 8.2 pounds of cocaine, 100.95 grams of crack and 4,758 pharmaceuticals, 2,689 of which were oxycodone pills.

'Pharmaceuticals are where we are seeing the biggest increases,' said Young.

The commission's findings did resonate with at least one New Hampshire prison official.

'Without question, I agree with their report,' said Cheshire County Department of Corrections Superintendent Richard Van Wickler. 'We have to come to the realization that drug use is not going to go away, and the question becomes how much money are we going to throw at it?'

Van Wickler is a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), which campaigns against the war on drugs in its current form. LEAP issued a report last week titled 'Ending the Drug War - A Dream Deferred,' in which Van Wickler writes: 'If prison-building were our goal, it would be a good reason to leave our drug laws as they are. But as a taxpayer and a professional, it's certainly not a goal of mine.'

Instead of punishing drug users, the Global Commission on Drug Policy says, officials should work to 'end the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others.'

Local officials say their goal isn't to increase prison populations.

'I think some have the impression that there are a lot of people locked up in New Hampshire for minor drug-related offenses, and I think if you look at the numbers, that's just not case,'' said Sgt. Baker. 'Here in Concord they do a good job in looking at the situations, at what's in the best interests of everyone involved.'

In Laconia, Capt. Cleary said, one example of how they are not specifically targeting drug users is an approach they use to track the source of drugs.

'When someone overdoses, we look at cell phone records, social media, all looking for the source - the seller,' said Cleary. 'Selling a fatal dosage of drugs can carry a minimum of 20 years. People think that after they sell the drugs, they aren't responsible, but by pursuing these charges against them, I think it's helped scare off some sellers.'

Young said that while law enforcement agencies need to continue to aggressively enforce drug laws, they also must continue to take each new investigation on a case-by-case basis.

'You have to look at the individual person,' said Young. 'Is the person an addict? Or are they a wholesaler looking to make a lot of selling? The distributors are the ones law enforcement continues to go after. New Hampshire takes this problem seriously, and we will continue to prosecute those that break the laws accordingly.'

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