Mental Health Matters: Lobbying groups and the law with drugs
Special to the Sun
I began writing this column over a year ago. In the beginning, I decided I would write about mental health matters and challenge the accepted wisdom about mental illness, drugs, alcohol and the criminalization of nonviolent behavior whenever the facts warranted it.
I was motivated partly by a desire to rethink and review some of my 45 years as a physician and psychiatrist and partly by a desire to demystify and de-stigmatize the problems of mental illness and substance abuse.
It’s been, for the most part, a fulfilling time. Some of my satisfaction stems from clarifying my own thoughts. Some stems from comments readers have made about particular columns.
A number of readers found my column about homelessness and mental illness useful and/or provocative. Columns about depression and major mental disorders elicited limited commentary.
Most controversial were my columns about marijuana and my advocacy of marijuana legalization. These evoked substantial debate and several “anti” legalization columns in the Bonanza in addition to comments agreeing with my position.
My talk to high school students about illicit drugs, to include remarks that marijuana is safer than alcohol, seemed to shock and anger some parents and educators in the community who apparently believe that only continued prohibition best serves children.
My subsequent column about that talk did little to dispel parental fear about how marijuana legalization would impact children.
Interestingly, my columns about the “War on Drugs,” the punitive criminal justice system approach to nonviolent personal possession of “illicit” drugs, the astonishing statistics about incarceration for drug possession, and the counterproductive impact of treating these mental problems as criminal matters did not provoke much comment except from two sources — lawyers and law enforcement.
Said comments were informative and instructive. Both groups told me that they do not make the law, but are charged with carrying it out. The problem, I’m told, is not with the criminal justice system’s approach to illegal drug possession, but with politicians who make the law.
In other words, “Don’t blame us. We may even agree with you about the failure of the ‘War on Drugs,’ but we’re largely powerless to do anything about the current state of affairs.”
While I agree in part with this logic, I believe the reality is more nuanced. Lawyers and law enforcement have powerful unions, lobbies and other associated or kindred interest groups who have substantial influence on politicians and the laws they pass or fail to pass.
These groups are no different than any other self-interest group. They exist to, first and foremost, protect the interests of their members, not the general public. In the end, all the rest is window dressing.
When laws are proposed that expand the reach of the criminal justice system, you’ll usually and reliably find organizations like District Attorney’s Associations, Police Chief Associations, State Sheriff’s Associations, and/or Correctional Supervisors Associations supporting them.
Contra wise, should a proposed law have the effect of decriminalizing certain behavior it will be opposed by these groups.
And to be inclusive, organized medicine is no different. You don’t see the American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association or American Society of Addiction Medicine lobbying to decrease the penalties for possession of illicit drugs even though the research, some of which I have described in prior columns, indicates that incarceration for these offenses only makes them worse.
If you want to more fully understand the impact that lobbying groups have on the law, you mightGgoogle Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) or Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SMA). Both of these organizations sport impressive credentials, the former in support of drug legalization and the latter against it.
In the future, I would hope to see these issues discussed more openly in our communities. Letter writing is one format. Educational meetings or forums are another.
I want to voice my appreciation to all those hard-working and generally unheralded individuals, groups and organizations for the work they do in supporting and providing mental health education and mental health treatment. I would also encourage community members and their local counties to increase their engagement and support for these folks.
I’d also like to give a shout out to Kevin MacMillan at the Sierra Sun-Bonanza and its parent organization, Swift Communications, for recognizing the importance of these issues in our community.
Providing a regular column on mental health and substance abuse in a family newspaper is gutsier than you might think. Writing about a personal matter with substance use even gutsier.
As for future columns, there is still a lot to talk about.
Incline Village resident Andrew Whyman, MD, is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist. His column focuses on drugs, mental health and substance abuse in an effort to raise better awareness. He can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.