Editorial: Mara is the wrong choice for drug czar

Thursday, June 01, 2017

In 1971, in announcing his administration’s war on drugs, President Richard Nixon said: “America is at war. We have been fighting drug abuse for almost a century. Four presidents have personally waged war on drugs. Unfortunately, it is a war that we are losing. Drug abusers continue to fill our courts, hospitals and prisons.”

There have been eight presidents since Nixon. All, to one degree or another, continued the nation’s war on drugs. All, as the opioid epidemic and overdose death toll prove, have failed.

We see little hope for progress if the war continues to be fought by devoting ever more resources to law enforcement. Little hope if it continues to be led, at the state and national levels, by former prosecutors and cops instead of addiction treatment and public health professionals.

That’s why, despite his long service in law enforcement, we question the selection of former Manchester and Portsmouth police chief David Mara as the state’s latest “drug czar.”

Mara is experienced, professional, personable and relatively progressive when it comes to support for greater drug treatment and prevention efforts. What’s needed, however, is someone willing and capable of convincing a state with one of the highest rates of addiction to take a new approach. Someone capable of convincing law-and-order legislators that devoting ever more state troopers to the state’s Granite Hammer drug interdiction effort is largely a waste of money better used to expand treatment programs.

That won’t be an easy task.

Last year, a former state senator and Republican gubernatorial candidate actually proposed ordering the state’s National Guard to patrol the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border in an attempt to stop the flow of drugs.

We applaud this week’s arrest of 30 suspected dealers, including several from New Hampshire, of the lethal synthetic opioid fentanyl by federal authorities working in concert with local law enforcement. Such arrests must continue. But law enforcement is no more the solution to the drug epidemic than killing terrorists is the solution to terrorism.

The answer, if one is ever found, will almost certainly be readily available, affordable treatment for drug users and the same kind of cultural and societal shift that made cigarette smoking a virtual taboo.

It’s also worth noting that as a retired police chief, Mara collects a pension of some $135,000 per year from the New Hampshire Retirement System, which remains woefully underfunded. If he, as we presume he will, puts in no more than 32 hours per week in his new state role, he will collect that sum plus a $95,000 per year state salary that’s exempt from contributions to the pension fund. For that kind of money, lawmakers and taxpayers should expect results.

Last year, nearly 500 New Hampshire residents died of a drug overdose. The state, despite a lot of talk and largely token efforts, remains one of the worst in the nation when it comes to the availability and affordability of treatment for substance abuse.

Yet that’s the most promising way to end the addiction epidemic that’s killing, on average, more than a resident per day.