08/09/2005 08:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Support Our Troops: Call a Truce in America’s Drug War

The war in Iraq is coming home in cruel and painful ways. It’s almost impossible to find even a tarnished silver lining amidst the suffering, but Tony Newman of the Drug Policy Alliance raises the interesting possibility that something good might come out of it -- if our elected officials are forced to rethink our nation’s disastrous war on drugs.

More and more soldiers coming home from Iraq are developing mental health problems (a recent study by the Army’s Surgeon General put the number at 30 percent). Already nearly 25,000 Iraq and Afghanistan vets have been diagnosed with psychological ailments. Because of the nature of the fighting in Iraq -- constant threats, hard to discern enemy, ambiguous goals -- experts expect that number to continue to rise. And soldiers suffering from such problems are known to have higher rates of substance abuse.

So how will we respond when the young men and women we sent to stamp out Saddam’s WMD...uh, I mean, bring democracy to the people of Iraq... start getting busted for taking to drugs to deal with their troubles?

Will we “stay the course” and do what we’ve being doing for decades (a failed strategy that has our prisons bursting at the seams, with around half-a-million people doing time on drug charges)? Or will we finally come to our senses and start dealing with nonviolent drug use as a medical problem not a criminal one?

Will the Bush administration really “support our troops” -- or is that just a feel-good slogan to trot out at campaign rallies?

So far, despite the supplemental funding measure just passed by Congress, vets across the country still report having to wait months or even years to receive the treatment they need for mental disorders and drug problems. Plus, as Mark Benjamin wrote in Salon Tuesday, the financially motivated review of 72,000 vets who have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder isn’t exactly a show of “support” to vets haunted by the memory of war. It’s so much easier to slap a bumper sticker on a car or tie a ribbon around a tree.

What needs to be done across the board on the drug war front -- move resources to treatment and rehabilitation -- needs to be done with much greater urgency when it comes to our vets. The U.S. military, for example, is sending 40 drug-addicted Iraq vets a year to a highly regarded rehab clinic in Peeblesshire, Scotland. The chairman of the clinic painted an evocative picture of the troops he’s treating: “They are being sent to all the corners of Iraq and are falling to pieces when they get back to base.”

But this is a drop in the bucket. Here in California, Nicole Parra, a State Assembly member, has introduced legislation that could be a model across the country. It authorizes judges to refer veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress and convicted of a crime -- including drug offenses -- to treatment programs instead of jail. The legislation itself simply extends a 1982 law designed to help Vietnam vets to include soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. But what is promising is that it was introduced by Parra, who has traditionally been something of a drug warrior. It’s not exactly Nixon going to China but it is indicative of a subtle shift in the political and cultural wind. Noting that so many Iraq vets are coming home psychologically damaged, Parra says: “The question then becomes, do you incarcerate a soldier with a mental illness if they commit a crime or do you treat them so it doesn’t happen again. I say you treat them.”

It’s a rationale that could serve as the starting point for a new way of approaching not just our Iraq vets but the entire war on drugs.