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George P. Shultz says we should decriminalize personal-use drugs

| Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
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George P. Shultz is a distinguished fellow at the Hoover Institution, a think tank based at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif. One of a handful of individuals who have held four different federal Cabinet positions, including secretary of State, Shultz, 92, spoke to the Trib about drug use in America.

Q: You've consistently been skeptical that the war on drugs ever could be successful. Why?

A: In the Nixon administration, when I first was secretary of Labor, then director of the budget and the secretary of the Treasury, we became concerned about the use of drugs and its impact on individuals and society.

I've always approached the subject from the standpoint of what can we do about the problem. My approach is not to be tolerant, but to try to do something about the (drug issue) and regard it as a health problem, really.

The effort to keep drugs out of this country is clearly a failure. Drugs are available.

You have to confront the fact that drug use in the United States is high compared with our other (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries. So I conclude from this that we need a different approach.

Q: What sort of approach?

A: I think you have to recognize the nature of the problem. People have been taking drugs for centuries, so you have to work at it and construct a campaign — not just an advertising campaign but a campaign that is fact based and designed to persuade people not to take drugs.

I point to our effort to get people not to smoke cigarettes as an example. In the United States, I believe, smoking (levels are) about a third of what they once were.

And you don't realize the difference until you go to Hong Kong or Paris or somewhere and you see the difference.

But the (anti-smoking effort) has been based on factual material, not just advertising, and it's been conducted consistently and effectively.

It's worked. So I think we could do that (with drugs).

Q: Where do you stand on the legalization of drugs?

A: Right now, everything about drugs is criminalized. So if I say, “Gee, I'm taking drugs, I need treatment,” I can be thrown in jail.

We have more people incarcerated per person in our population than any other country in the world, and many of them are there for drug-related crimes. If you're arrested for possessing a small amount of drugs, you can be thrown in jail, where you learn how to be a real criminal.

So I say don't legalize, but decriminalize use for small-scale possessions, defined as the amount you might have for your own use. (Do that) and now you can go to a treatment center and seek help and not get arrested.

Q: What do you think the long-term effects of decriminalization would be here?

A: They've been working on this in Portugal and other places. Unlike the predictions that were made, there wasn't a big explosion of drug use (following decriminalization). Quite the contrary.

Second, (decriminalization) didn't make much headway with all addicts. But you did see a real change in young people.

You get them before they get addicted, you get them treated and you get their heads turned around right. That is what is important.

And also the jails empty out and there are a lot of associated diseases that come out of the jails, AIDS and so on, that will go way down.

I think we should move in that direction.

Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media (412-320-7857 or eheyl@tribweb.com).

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