Let’s get real

The Asheville City Council’s recent tussle (“It’s War,” May 12 Xpress) made me want to join the discussion about drugs, the war on drugs, the cost to the taxpayers, and other options for our community. Drugs — the illegal ones we fear and launch wars against — could become a profitable and positive source of revenue for this city if we changed our approach from “We have a drug problem” to “Many people use drugs in our society, and we would rather create comprehensive, holistic (as some Council members called it) ways to address how, when and where people choose to do the drugs they do.”

The war on drugs takes far too much money from the national budget; our local budget would do much better if we took a different tack. Let’s take a stand in North Carolina to be forethoughtful: “Asheville — we talk about drugs realistically.”

Let’s sit down with our state representatives, local officials and neighbors to decriminalize drugs where we can. Other cities are doing it (see www.NORML.org). Shall we be next? And why not start with weed?

I’m going to be real honest with you: I’ve smoked weed (marijuana, grass or whatever you call it) over the years when I’ve had the notion to. More than likely you, yourself, smoke it or have smoked it too. You may not find it easy to say so, but for my part, I am sick and tired of pussyfooting around the subject.

I haven’t had a sip of alcohol (beer, wine, spirits or whatever you call it) in close to 10 years. And whether I’m better or worse off for either of these decisions, the fact is, it’s my choice — and it should be for each of us.

An individual’s possession of weed should be a non-issue. So what if I were to grow a few plants, or enjoy the delightful fruits of a neighbor’s labor? I’ll even advocate publicly for a buyer’s club like the ones in some big cities, so that those who could benefit medically from quality-controlled, locally or regionally grown weed could access it more readily. Damn, we should be able to light up at restaurants and clubs, or in the park while enjoying the vistas of the surrounding mountains.

Vice Mayor Mumpower’s eye-opening night in public housing, watching drug deals take place outside his window, must have been frightening. But aren’t we mostly talking about a different drug here? Wasn’t it crack that he saw dealt? A touchy subject indeed. I could easily criticize it, or the people who choose to do it, but I’m no more interested in that than I am in ingesting it myself.

I wonder, though, if Mr. Mumpower would share his observations about the clientele he saw buying drugs. Isn’t there a variety of races, ages and sexes who buy drugs in town? Sure, there are “hard drugs 24 hours a day,” as he put it. And I don’t have any easy answers for addressing crack use.

Maybe we could have a local college or university do a study that would at least provide pharmaceutical-grade product to all participants. Would people enroll if they knew they could come to a study site and smoke crack all day long? Is it something that people would rather do in the comfort of their own homes? Would it be any different ethically to decriminalize crack use? Let’s talk about it. I like the idea of “public safety” being City Council’s No. 1 charge.

During the 12 years I’ve lived and worked in Asheville, I’ve been involved in HIV/AIDS/STD/hepatitis and alcohol/substance-abuse prevention education. I am the coordinator of the only openly active needle-exchange program in the state of North Carolina (there are at least two other underground programs in other North Carolina cities). And I would like to remind the current Asheville City Council that previous administrations and the community in general have been supportive of the effort to reduce yet another unnecessary cost to us — the cost of care for someone with any or all of the above-mentioned diseases. So support your local needle-exchange program: Let’s have no new HIV/hepatitis B or C infections due to dirty, shared needles!

It’s my hope that there’ll be open dialogue with the new police chief about how he and his staff can help reduce harm in the community related to drug use. That could include being part of and supporting decriminalization; community roundtables with “drug dealers,” to solicit their views; town meetings with judges and attorneys who spend so much time and money adjudicating drug-related cases; looking at the medical issues; and understanding the economics of survival in our society (i.e., why people buy and sell drugs).

In my view, we’d do better to be a little “soft” on drugs and their users. You can say what you will, but I don’t believe in spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight a losing battle.

Let’s get real — and then get progressive and creative. We should spend our money on after-school programs and treatment slots for people who want to stop doing drugs and need help getting off of them. That’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it.

[Michael Harney coordinates North Carolina’s only openly active needle-exchange program.]

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