Drug reform is topic of U class for elders

by Emily Dalnodar

Every Monday a group of elders file into a room at Coffman Union to talk the straight dope.
The University’s ElderLearning Institute, a community program for people of retirement age, sponsors a new class this term called “To Pot Or Not To Pot: Perspectives On America’s Drug War.”
The course, taught by entrepreneur and activist Billie Young, highlights some of the problems with the government’s drug policies.
Young got involved with drug reform in 1992 after a conversation at a dinner party turned to changes needed in drug policies. She decided then she was somebody who could help make those changes.
In addition to teaching the class, Young produces a newsletter called “It’s Time for Change,” which she distributes to members of the Drug Policy Reform Group she founded.
The group has about 100 members, including two retired Minnesota Supreme Court justices.
“What I had decided was that policies don’t lead, they follow public opinion,” Young said. “Public opinion does not gel until there’s discussion.”
Conversation is encouraged in the class, and students ask many questions. During Monday’s session, Dan Cain from the Eden House, a drug rehabilitation clinic in Minnesota, spoke to the class and answered questions. Amid gasps and sighs from the crowd, Cain told stories of how drug addicts are treated in the current system.
“Some of these things knock me out. There’s a jolt every 15 minutes,” said Eleanor Clark, a student in Young’s class. She and other students were surprised when Young and Cain told them that nonviolent drug users fill more than 60 percent of America’s jails.
Expressions became serious and concerned as the class turned to the challenges faced by the system when dealing with drug problems. Many wanted to know why so much money is spent locking up people who have a problem.
Hennepin County District Court Judge Kevin Burke wondered the same thing. After much research, he started the Hennepin County Drug Court in order to more effectively deal with drug offenders.
Instead of sending them to jail, Burke gives many abusers a chance to receive treatment for their problem and a shot at a new life.
“The drug court gives everyone one bite at the treatment apple,” said Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman. “If they come back and are on drugs again, Burke might give them a lecture and make them do community service.” If that doesn’t work, then prison is considered.
Freeman said he is satisfied with the way the court deals with drug addicts in need of help. But he is not yet happy with its handling of “entrepreneurs,” people who profit from sales of large amounts of drugs but are often not users themselves.
While drug court is a good start, some think more needs to be done.
Rep. Jim Ramstad, R-Minn., is co-sponsor of the Substance Abuse Treatment Parity Act. The Act prohibits insurance companies from discriminating against drug addicts seeking help.
Ramstad also said that under the Act, addicts will be treated the same as a person with any other disease, such as cancer or Parkinson’s disease.
He added that drug offenders need to be dealt with in a more comprehensive manner.
“There are 26 million Americans who are chemically dependent. We haven’t spent enough resources in prevention and treatment,” Ramstad said.
Young’s class addresses all of these topics. She said she is not trying to do away with drug policy, but a public health model needs to replace punishment.
An avid traveler, Young used to live in South America where she saw first-hand the effects of America’s War on Drugs.
She said the business of drugs is so huge in South America that even the “Gente Buenas” (good people) are involved.
“What are you going to do if you’re a poor kid, flip burgers or sell crack?” Young said. She shared stories of how lucrative the drug trade can be for poor families.
She also discussed jail sentences for medical marijuana users. The class seemed disturbed to learn that people with otherwise clean records are being sent to prison for using pot to relieve pain caused by disease.
“I’m not saying we should be selling drugs out of vending machines like JuJu’s, but I think marijuana should be legalized. It’s not addictive, it just makes you sleepy,” said Young, who says she has never used marijuana.
While much research reveals marijuana does not cause a physical addiction, it is a touchy subject and not all are quick to agree with Young’s views.
During treatment for an alcohol addiction in 1981, Ramstad knew people in a marijuana program. With a chemical dependency problem, marijuana can be as addictive as any other substance, he said.
“This is an expensive amount of money for people who don’t need to be in jail,” said Raymond Schroeder, a student in Young’s class. “I have a feeling that there must be a better way.”