Mark Coleman

First Sunday


Pam Lichty, Hawaii's leading spokeswoman for drug policy reform and civil rights, emphasized a point during a conversation at her home.

Pam Lichty fights
the ‘wars’ at home

Pam Lichty surprised me when I called her about meeting me for a "First Sunday Conversation." I knew that she was the vice president and main spokeswoman for the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, which for years has been the leading voice for reform of Hawaii's drug laws. Turns out, though, that she also is the Hawaii affiliate president of the American Civil Liberties Union. What a bonus!

Our conversation thus ranged from the war on drugs to the war on terrorism. Both wars have seriously affected America's social fabric, and both have had serious implications for our rights under the U.S. Constitution.

On the day we met, Lichty seemed dispirited about the results of the latest general election: Only two of the half-dozen or so drug policy reform initiatives on the mainland had been approved, while Republicans had retained control of the House, won control of the Senate and picked up more governorships. Apparently she thought this might be a setback for the cause of drug policy reform.

I reminded her that more people were arrested for marijuana possession under President Clinton, a Democrat, than under his predecessor, a Republican, and one of the most outspoken proponents of drug policy reform in recent years has been Gary Johnson, the outgoing Republican governor of New Mexico.

"So you believe in the Nixon-goes-to-China theory of change?" she said.

Not necessarily, I said, but not much drug policy reform has taken place under Democrats -- perhaps because they have been afraid to appear soft on crime. In any case, that all led to my first question. Pick up the conversation below ...

"Drug laws in this country have never been based on science or economics. They often are based on moralistic values and, especially in the old days, on racism." --Pam Lichty, Drug policy reform advocate

Outlook for reform

Mark Coleman: Is there any reason for people who are interested in drug policy reform to be optimistic?

Pam Lichty: Yes, I think there is. We were disappointed by the results in Nevada, but the Nevada initiative was different from all the others that were up for consideration (on Election Day, Nov. 5) because it didn't deal with medical use of marijuana, which seems to be a much more popular issue with voters. It was for total decriminalization for up to three ounces, and I think they were just making a leap that even in Nevada, which is famously libertarian, was too great.

MC: What about Arizona? Wasn't that also a decriminalization issue?

PL: That was kind of a surprise. It's been criticized as a "kitchen sink" initiative, and apparently tried to institute too many changes at once. But the other interesting initiatives were about treatment in lieu of incarceration, similar to what California passed in 1998 and what we passed here last year. Washington, D.C., just passed a bill mandating treatment in lieu of incarceration for first-time drug offenders. In Ohio they had a similar initiative, but the governor, a Republican, was strongly against it. He's one of the Taft dynasty, so that battle was lost.

MC: Did he win re-election?

PL: He (Bob Taft) won the election strongly. I think that the Republicans winning all over the country indicated a conservative surge, and some of the initiatives went down. The one exception besides Washington, D.C., was in San Francisco. Do you know about that one?

MC: Yeah. The city is thinking of growing medical marijuana so it can dispense it.

PL: Yeah, and it passed very strongly. It doesn't mandate the city to do anything -- it says it now has the authority -- but I think the city will do it.

Reform in Hawaii

MC: What is the status of drug policy reform in Hawaii?

PL: I think it's promising. We don't know who the new state health director or public safety director is going to be, so it's hard to know which direction it's going to go, but we've been trying to get the message out to Republicans and conservatives that it's more cost-effective to promote treatment for nonviolent people (convicted of drug offenses) than to imprison them. And I think that some of them may be beginning to hear it. The other issue is mandatory minimum sentencing, which is really contributing to prison overcrowding. We've had kind of mixed messages from Gov.-elect Linda Lingle on this, and I'm not sure what her position is.

MC: Are you saying that the current state health and public safety directors have been blocking reform?

PL: No, I didn't mean to imply that. The Department of Public Safety has been very supportive. But of course, they are Governor Cayetano's appointees.

MC: And Cayetano's attitude has been what?

PL: Well, he introduced the bill for treatment in lieu of incarceration in the 2000 session, and it passed in 2001, so he's been very good on these issues.

MC: What do the drug laws cost Hawaii taxpayers in terms of incarceration?

PL: If you remember the ads that the Drug Policy Forum did a year or so ago, it said it cost about $32,000 a year to keep a person in jail for a year, and treatment, even the Cadillac of treatment, is about $10,000 a year. Then there's the issue of reduced recidivism if they get treatment. So if you look at it on an individual basis, obviously it's no contest.

MC: Is there a counterargument that by taking the drug user off the street, they are reducing the costs of theft by users?

PL: Yes, for the time that they are in prison, but then if you don't give them any treatment, they're likely to go back and offend. Not only that, while they're in prison the state is often supporting their families or their children, especially if it's women, and especially if they're sent to the mainland, where they're cut off from their families and their support systems. So there are social costs in addition to economic costs when you throw people in jail. But there's been a reluctance to think these things through.

MC: With so many people having been arrested and so many families being affected, why hasn't reform of the drug laws happened more quickly? Doesn't the cruelty of it all seem obvious?

PL: We have to look at the types of people who are affected. Minority groups in this country are much more affected by the drug laws than are middle-class white people, and they don't have much clout.

MC: What about Hawaii? What groups are most affected by the drug laws here?

PL: Native Hawaiians are very overrepresented in our prisons, as are other Pacific islanders and Filipinos.

'Harm reduction'

MC: The Drug Policy Forum has often used the term "harm reduction." That's the phrase, right?

PL: It means reducing the harm from both drug use and also from some of the drug laws. If you put someone in jail for 10-15 years without giving them any treatment or job training, and they still have their habit when they come out, then they will go back to their old environment.

MC: The environment in prison isn't too great, either.

PL: Right. So harm reduction is really a realistic way of looking at society's drug problems. If we can't keep drugs out of our prisons, how can we ever hope to keep them out of our society as a whole? We believe that the ideal of a drug-free America or a drug-free Hawaii is just a fantasy. All you have to do is turn on the television to see the ads for Prozac, the little purple pill, headache remedies and so on.

MC: I have a friend who likes to call it the "war against some drugs" -- his point being that it's really socially and culturally defined.

PL: That's right. For example, in some Islamic cultures, alcohol is illegal but hashish might be legal. So drug laws in this country have never been based on science or economics. They often are based on moralistic values and, especially in the old days, on racism. The very first drug laws were anti-opium laws, and they were targeting Chinese workers who had been brought in to work on the railroads.

Pam Lichty gets down to business in her home office.

The Drug Policy Forum

MC: You're not a lawyer, right?

PL: That's right. I moved here from New Mexico in 1985 to go to grad school, and I got a degree from the University of Hawaii School of Public Health in 1987. My husband and I were planning to return to the mainland, but we like it here a lot and ended up staying.

MC: When was the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii formed?

PL: In 1993. Don Topping, president of the group, who was then a professor at the UH and director of the Social Science Research Institute, he and I founded it. We were concerned about the direction Hawaii was going in drug policy, so we formed a small group to serve as a forum to delve into alternatives to current policies.

MC: Does the Drug Policy Forum take official positions on issues?

PL: Not really. There is a consensus that the punitive policies that have been in place for the last 30 years aren't working and it's time for a change, but we don't all agree on what that exact change might look like. We're not saying, mind you, that there are no problems in our society with substance abuse. There are plenty of problems, from drunken driving to crime, but it's a matter of how we approach it. We believe a public-health approach would be more effective than the failed law-enforcement approach.

MC: What's your day job?

PL: I don't have a day job at the moment. After I got my degree at the UH, I worked at the Legislature for a few years, for Jim Shon, who then was head of the House Health Committee. Then I worked for the Governor's Committee on HIV/AIDS, when the needle-exchange program was developed, so I was involved in the start-up of that.

MC: Do they still have that?

PL: Oh, yes. It's considered one of the most successful in the country. It gets evaluated every year and gets consistently good reviews, and it's responsible for saving a lot of lives and saving a lot of money. After that, I just did consulting for a number of years, and then for the last several years I've just been doing these two volunteer things: the ACLU and the Drug Policy Forum.


MC: How did your relationship with the American Civil Liberties Union evolve?

PL: I've been supportive of the ACLU since I lived in New Mexico and helped it with fund-raising and so forth. Then I came here, and in working with AIDS, there are a lot of civil liberties issues involved. In the early part of the AIDS epidemic in particular, there were horrible cases of discrimination. Eventually I met ACLU Executive Director Vanessa Chong and joined the ACLU board. For a while I was representative to the national board, which was really interesting.

MC: How do you decide which cases to take on?

PL: First, I want to make a point that everybody sees the ACLU as suing, because that's what usually makes the papers. But suing is the last resort, because of course it's expensive and it's a gamble. We have a tiny staff of four; it's a volunteer-driven organization, so we try to resolve things without going to the extent of a lawsuit. We might just make a phone call or write a letter, and often that's all it takes.

MC: I generally don't like to use political labels, but that said, the ACLU has a reputation of being a left-wing, liberal group that often pursues things that might not be considered very libertarian while shying away from certain issues that would seem to be within its purview. For example, I think the group would get a lot more support if it were more clear on the Second Amendment. I was checking the ACLU's national Web site the other day ...

PL: We don't get into it.

MC: Well, what it says is that the right to keep and bear arms is a collective right -- not an individual right like all the other rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights. It also doesn't reflect any of the recent scholarship on the issue or any of the recent court decisions.

PL: Well, the Supreme Court hasn't agreed to hear any cases on it since 1938, and it's not a core issue for us. There are other groups whose sole purpose is to support the Second Amendment. Regarding political labels, I want to point out one case on the Big Island where we're defending a police officer. He was put under surveillance and harassed using police resources after he criticized the police chief because of a departmental promotions cheating scandal.

We have also defended churches that wanted to put out signs like "Jesus is coming." We defended Oliver North, and we defended the Ku Klux Klan. So, I know we're often portrayed as left-of-center, but we try to be balanced.

Looking ahead

MC: What's the future for you with either the Drug Policy Forum or the ACLU?

PL: Certainly the work to be done isn't going to end any time soon. In the drug-reform arena, despite the recent setbacks, I still feel like the trend is in the right direction, I feel optimistic. In terms of what the ACLU does, after 9/11 and after the USA Patriot Act, it's a very scary time for civil liberties. They've used the 9/11 tragedy to roll back civil liberties in all sorts of ways, some of which I think maybe most people are not aware of: increased access to people's private e-mails, easier to wiretap, they can find out what movies you rent from what rental place, and just some really, really scary incursions. So just in terms of the climate around civil liberties, I think the ACLU is really vital right now.

MC: It would seem that the ACLU's work will never be done.

PL: I fear not.

MC: And that's a good thing. I mean, it's good to have to realize that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

PL: Why, that happens to be one of our slogans! (Laughs) It's from Thomas Jefferson and is on our T-shirt. It says that on the front, and then on the back it says, "Eternal fund raising is the price of vigilance."

Mark Coleman's conversations with people who have had an impact on our community appear on the first Sunday of every month. If you have a comment or suggestion, please send it to

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