Judge urges truce in war on drugs

Giving drugs to users would unclog courts and eliminate illegal market for substances

By Karen Abbott
Rocky Mountain News Staff Writer

A Denver federal judge wants the government to give free drugs to drug abusers and stop prosecuting them as criminals.

John Kane Jr., a senior trial judge, believes the drug war already is lost. He advocates treating drug abuse as a public health problem instead.

Kane, who has been making the argument in articles and speeches for about six months, said he doesn't advocate making all drugs legal for anybody who wants them.

"Prosecution and severe criminal penalties should still be maintained for the illegal manufacture, distribution for sale and illegal importing of drugs," Kane said.

"But I think that the use of drugs should not be treated by the criminal law," he said.

"Either through public health clinics or through physicians and pharmacists, drugs ought to be provided to anybody, under medical supervision -- and at no cost, if necessary."

The purpose isn't to encourage people to use drugs, but to eliminate the illegal market for them, he said, comparing the "war on drugs" to Prohibition's failure to end alcoholism.

Kane said courts are drowning in criminal drug cases while other crimes go unprosecuted and civil disputes wait for trial time.

Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., who is seeking re-election to Congress in November, called Kane's idea a bad one.

"I think that sends a real signal to society, and to young people, that this is really OK because, after all, the government is doing it," Hefley said.

"Even with legalized liquor, we still have bootleggers and we still have alcoholism," he said. "And I'm not sure, from a social standpoint, that it would reduce those who abuse drugs."

Andrew Hudson, spokesman for Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, said the mayor disagrees with Kane's view.

Kane said other federal judges across the country -- most notably, a senior federal trial judge in Manhattan, Robert Sweet -- are saying publicly that the war on drugs has failed.

The U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, headed by Barry McCaffrey, known as the nation's "drug czar," has heard that message before and is vehemently opposed.

"Drugs are a real danger, even in small amounts," spokesman Brian Morton said.

He said drug abuse nationwide has dropped about 50 percent in the past 15 years, largely because "drugs are against the law, and police uphold the law, and the societal disapproval that comes from that."

"To say this is a 'war' that has failed doesn't serve the public, doesn't do any service to the good people out there working in treatment centers, the law enforcement community and the citizens and parents and teachers and ministers who are trying to stop this scourge on America's cities," Morton said.

Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., seeking re-election to Congress in November, delivered a carefully worded statement on Kane's views through spokesman Jamin Spitzer: "A proposal such as this is unlikely to be considered by a Congress that recently voted against funding needle exchange."

But DeGette's statement didn't disclose her own views.

"Right," Spitzer said.

Needle exchange programs seek to control some drug-related health problems by giving illegal users a sort of amnesty to turn in used needles for new ones, reducing the spread of disease.

In April, Kane made a speech to Colorado's municipal judges at their annual convention about what he sees as the drug war's failure.

"I think some of them were stunned," Kane said. "And some of them said, "Well, you know, maybe we agree -- but what is a judge doing talking about controversial issues?"'

Kane said he cleared his plan to be outspoken on his views with Stephanie Seymour of Tulsa, Okla., the chief judge of the federal 10th Circuit, and with a federal judiciary committee on judges' ethics.

"Not only is it all right, but I have an affirmative duty to speak out on critical legal issues," he said.

On the bench, Kane does not handle drug cases or any other criminal cases -- an option for senior federal trial judges, who choose the cases they take.

Related links:

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration

The National Drug Strategy Network

June 4, 1998