In 1969, Richard J. Bonnie was teaching at UVA’s School of Law, from which he had just graduated, when he read about a case in Roanoke that involved a sentence of 20 years in jail for possession of a small amount of marijuana. It was the height of the counterculture wars, and similar events were playing out around the country. White Panther John Sinclair, for instance, was sentenced to a decade in prison that same year for possession of two joints and became an icon when John Lennon named a song after him, demanding, "They gave him 10 for two, what else could the bastards do?"
"It would compound the [Tech] tragedy if we failed to take advantage of the opportunity that it has provided," says Richard Bonnie, this year’s UVA Thomas Jefferson Award winner.
Bonnie, meanwhile, took a more scholarly approach. He applied a cost-benefit analysis to drug laws that at the time made no differentiation between hard drugs like heroin and cocaine and lesser substances like marijuana, and published a paper calling for reform. In a volatile time of marches and riots, Bonnie’s practical approach was so refreshing that it soon gained the notice of then U.S. president, Richard Nixon. After a one-year stint in the Air Force, the young attorney found himself on the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse.
Serving as the Commission’s executive director, Bonnie and his cohorts issued a report two years later calling for decriminalization of marijuana when it came to private consumption, including possession for personal use and casual nonprofit distribution. Instead of penalization, the Commission called for more effort in the area of prevention. "We looked at drug use as a public health problem as opposed to a moral problem," Bonnie says from his office in the UVA law school. "We were trying to reduce the adverse social and welfare consequences of the use of these drugs."
While Nixon decided against implementing their suggestions, the nation was a different matter. During the 1970s, 12 states decriminalized marijuana, Bonnie testified before Congress twice, the UVA Press published his research and findings in 1974 as The Marijuana Conviction and President Jimmy Carter endorsed decriminalization nationwide. But then came the monolithic backlash of Ronald Reagan and "Just Say No."
By that time, Bonnie was director of UVA’s Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy, where he was using a model he had perfected while with the Commission—what he describes as a scientific approach to policy making—for the areas of mental health and death penalty law, among others. "We make so much policy without actually thinking, measuring and paying attention to whether we’re getting the benefits we’re trying to get," he says. "Instead we make highly politicized, moralized decisions."
For example, take the death penalty, Bonnie says. "One of the issues is whether deterrence really has anything to do with this. Or isn’t the grounding of why we continue to have the death penalty a set of intuitions that people have about why you have to have the ultimate penalty for certain kinds of really awful things that human beings do to other human beings?" he asks, pointing to sharp views on either side of the issue. "Oliver Wendell Holmes called these kinds of attitudes the ‘can’t helps,’ because people just can’t help feeling the way they do," he says. "If that’s so, it may be that the empirical features of this don’t really have much to do with it. …At some point, the evidence is important in order to promote rational informed decisions, even when they are driven by moral views," he says. "I think we can do better than we’ve done."
Over 35 years of employing this type of pragmatic approach has earned Bonnie two recent honors. In 2006, he was picked to head the Commonwealth of Virginia Commission of Mental Health Law. That body got much more recognition following the April 16 Virginia Tech massacre because of the political support the killing spree has brought to efforts to reform a severely outdated mental health system.
"It would compound the [Tech] tragedy if we failed to take advantage of the opportunity that it has provided," he says.
Last month, Bonnie received the 2007 Thomas Jefferson Award, UVA’s highest honor, which he likens to winning the Nobel Prize. "I’ve had a number of awards over the course of my career, but there’s something genuinely special about receiving an award from the University called the Thomas Jefferson Award, and to be in the company of the people who have received it previously," he says. "It’s almost embarrassing actually."
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