Frank Carroll


I’m glad we’re studying ways to reform our hopelessly destructive drug laws in South Dakota. The reason we’re revisiting our drug laws is that what we’re doing now is not working on any level. The police are frustrated. The courts are frustrated. The Legislature is frustrated. The public is in despair. Our prisons are overcrowded. Our inmates are on an endless treadmill of prison life. We are not safer. We have not slowed the flow of drugs or changed drug use patterns. We have created a felony factory surrounded by an ocean of more thoughtful states where marijuana is legal and small amounts of other drugs are dealt with rationally, not with prison. Real reform will be illusive.

In our haste to do the right things over the last century, we have instead done the wrong things over and over, with disastrous results. I hope we meant well. If our success is measured by the people we help who have drug problems, we’re failing. We have a handful of Fort Apache treatment centers here and there in a vast wilderness of unmet needs. We don’t have the money to build ever bigger, more sophisticated, mandatory treatment centers. It may be overkill anyway. Simple virtually free changes to our drug laws would alleviate so much harm and save so many lives and resources.

If our success is measured in keeping our communities safer, we’re failing. Our laws regarding ingesting drugs and possessing small amounts of drugs serve no purpose and do only harm. Maybe prison contractors who need bed counts or police departments that need extra equipment and lots more officers like the laws as written, but I don’t think so. We are systematically sending our people, mostly poor and mostly marginal, to felony boot camps where they can add merit badges for larceny, robbery, assault, using more dangerous drugs, and any other bad and harmful thing that people can learn in hardcore penal camps.

Following an old South Dakota rule that if something didn’t work before we certainly ought to try it again, we have established a committee to look at the problem. Mr. Haugaard’s committee is guaranteed to talk past each other and achieve little of lasting importance. Mr. Vargo and Mr. Whitcher have long experience viewing the elephant, Mr. Vargo from a distance and Mr. Whitcher from close up.

The committee needs a mediator with actual knowledge of the whole elephant. Judicial first responder Matt Brown from Custer comes to mind. Matt was a pit bull prosecutor like Mr. Vargo who found himself in a judge’s robes a few years ago. As a result, Matt now sees the world as Mr. Whitcher sees it, as Mr. Vargo sees it, and as it actually is, and has spoken comprehensively about his findings over the past few years. Matt is not on the committee. He’s too busy running the drug court and trying to mitigate the firestorm that our drug laws create, burning through people’s lives and eating the foundations of our society. Let’s hope somebody asks his opinion and then follows his advice.

Mr. Vargo is wrong about our laws. He is bunkering in to maintain a death grip on the rules that have caused the committee to meet in the first place. His inexperience doesn’t bode well for the outcome. Mr. Whitcher is partly right. He has been to the mountain and seen the progress of other states, and the mess in our own, and he is on point. Let’s save some time and money and let Judge Matt Brown sort it out. It’s what he does best.

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Frank Carroll is a freelance writer and columnist. He can be reached by emailing frank@wildfirepros.com or visiting wildfirepros.com

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