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Mental Health Matters: Assembly 26 candidates discuss War on Drugs

Andrew Whyman
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There is an upcoming election in Nevada Assembly District 26, which includes Incline-Crystal Bay. Because of my abiding interest in improving mental health and substance abuse services, I asked the two candidates, Lisa Krasner and Jason Guinasso, to respond to questions about substance abuse.

Here are my questions: 1. Has the War on Drugs been a success? 2. The country is changing its views on drug abuse. Jurisdictions have implemented or are considering a public health approach to drug abuse as opposed to a criminal justice approach. Are you satisfied with our current programs? 3. Is drug possession a public health issue? 4. Would you see any value in decriminalizing drug possession?

Krasner wrote, “I am opposed to the legalization of recreational marijuana. In regard to youth substance abuse, youth substance abuse offenders would benefit more from a rehabilitation program than incarceration with no support or rehabilitation included. Substance abuse is a serious problem among our youth … 23.5 million persons aged 12 or older needed treatment for an illicit drug or alcohol abuse problem in 2009 … only 2.6 million received it at a specialty facility … there were 1.8 million admissions in 2008 for treatment of alcohol and drug abuse. Most treatment admissions (41.4 percent) involved alcohol abuse. Heroin and other opiates accounted for the largest percentage of drug-related admissions, followed by marijuana.”



Guinasso, addressing the war on drugs, wrote, “This is a difficult question because America is either winning, or losing, depending on whom you ask … drug use is down over the last 25 years. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services conducted a study that shows that in 1999, 14.8 million Americans were drug users, down from the 1979 peak of 25 million users. So, by that measure … yes, the drug war has been a success. However, roughly a half-million Americans are in prison for drug offenses. By that measure, I would not say the drug war has been a success. Of the approximately 2 million people behind bars in the U.S., about 500,00 are there for drug-law violations (more than the total number of people jailed for all criminal offenses in Western Europe, although the U.S. has 100 million fewer people). I would like to see the work to prevent access, use and abuse of drugs continue, while looking at alternatives to holding drug offenders accountable for their crimes.”

“Our common humanity demands comprehensive, non-punitive treatment programs available on demand and equal to the need.”

Addressing my question about a public health as opposed to criminal justice approach, Guinasso said, “… law enforcement are doing an outstanding job enforcing current drug policy; however, I do believe we need to rethink institutionalizing non-violent drug offenders…alternative options include probation, treatment for addiction, counseling and education..13 states expanded drug treatment or programs which divert drug offenders away from jail or prison into community-based programs. Drug Courts have also emerged in the last decade to play a critical role in redirecting low-level drug offenders away from traditional, punitive models..”



Mr. Guinasso also said, “Drug possession is a criminal issue as well as a public health issue…” and, “Decriminalizing drug possession … would not be a good public policy … drug possession and use should remain illegal; however, we need to examine how we hold criminals accountable for their crimes. I would support reducing the penalties for low level-drug crimes, giving judges more discretion, and retreating from the rhetoric of war and unscientific policy analysis.”

So, there you have it. Krasner was against the legalization of marijuana and endorsed rehabilitation as preferable to incarceration for youth offenders.

Guinasso offered responsive answers, but some of his research was dated. For example, it is true that there were fewer drug users in 1999 than in 1979, but after 1992, the number of users gradually increased through 1999 (National Drug Control Strategy, 2001). Moreover, by 2014, 27.0 million people aged 12 or older used an illicit drug in the past 30 days, higher than every year from 2002 through 2013.

Now, recall that overdose deaths have quadrupled in the last 20 years, that overdose deaths were the leading cause of injury deaths in 2013, surpassing deaths by motor vehicles accidents, and that there are 129 drug overdose deaths per day in America.

Bottom line: Drug abuse is a public health crisis in our community and across America. Our common humanity demands comprehensive, non-punitive treatment programs available on demand and equal to the need.

Anything less is mere window dressing, a salve to soothe the conscience of a nation’s misguided drug policies and priorities.

Incline Village resident Andrew Whyman, MD, is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist. He can be reached for comment at adwhyman143@gmail.com.


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