The Impossible Victory of the War on Drugs
Let’s start things off with a little questionnaire:
- Do you think that those addicted to or have problems with alcohol and/or drugs are scum, weak, less than human (animals) or even criminals?
- Do you have a close friend or family member who is or has been addicted to or had problems with alcohol and/or drugs?
- If yes to #2, do you think of this close friend or family member as scum, weak, less than human (animal) or even a criminal?
- If yes to #3, congratulations, you are the person for whom the War on Drugs was created – and you get bonus points for being an asshole.
According to the book Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari, the United States has been waging the so-called War on Drugs for going on a century. From the beginning, the intent of the war – complete with actual armies, battlefronts, bullets and casualties – has been to eliminate the scourge of intoxicants from the world. The enemy in this war has been alternatively the “evil” substances themselves and “those people” who out of weakness of character and will power come under the sway of that Demon Drink and wreak a particular brand of havoc, starting at the epicenter of their own personal lives and rippling out to their families and beyond, that exacts a dear cost on society. Since we “civilized” people don’t consort in alleyways, we don’t claim to actually know any of these junkies, or so we rationalize in order to convince ourselves the war is as justified as if Hitler himself was capturing innocent people off the streets and forcing illicit substances down their throats and needles in their veins. We further marginalize these individuals, many of them already marginalized by race and socioeconomic status, in our slums where they can kill each other all day long in their scramble for their daily fix or domination of a certain street corner. Or we lock them up in our prisons and throw away the key, thereby reassuring ourselves that none of their influence can leak out and infect us or the places where we, the civilized, live our staid and orderly lives. Only, as Hari’s book persuasively demonstrates, the enemy is not some alien being taken over by chemicals. The enemy in this drawn out, costly and futile war is us.
I came of age in the era of Nancy Reagan’s ridiculous “Just Say No” campaign. This laughably misguided attempt to curtail drug use in our youth was mocked as sanctimonious and mean-spirited by known druggie Jerry Garcia by suggesting the friendlier way to say the phrase was “Just say no thank you.” Mrs. Reagan represented every single parent and authority figure pooh-poohing something so rabidly that you couldn’t help but find it irresistibly attractive. Besides, these hysterical admonishments from Mrs. Reagan and her adult proxies were a bit hard to swallow where I lived in Savannah, when the partaking of alcohol, a far more dangerous – and legal – drug, was practically a rite of passage among my Irish-Catholic classmates. Chasing the Scream underscores the futility in prosecuting a war of temperance and prohibition that is not only inherently hypocritical but also inconsistent in the substances it permits and forbids, as well as the people it prosecutes or pardons. As a matter of public policy this is also an egregious kind of governmental overreach into our personal lives that conservatives are forever railing against. It is a war that arguably has done far more harm in its inordinate targeting and mass incarceration of minority populations than if all forms of drugs had been legal the entire time. The War on Drugs sure as hell hasn’t made these illicit substances any harder to come by.
I’m sure there are those, including our local law enforcement and pastors in Catawba County, who might beg to differ that the War on Drugs has been a futile undertaking. They will tell you, as they sip on their mixed drinks at cocktail parties, take drags off their cigarettes, enervate themselves in the morning with their several cups of coffee, or pop their prescription pills, that it is worth whatever it takes to get these addicts and junkies off the streets. And yet statistically we know that recreational drug users are not only hiding among them but are also far less likely to be prosecuted. According to the 2013 National Survey on Drugs and Health, whites and blacks use all types of drugs at approximately the same rate (10.5% and 9.5% respectively), but blacks are nearly three times more likely (2.6 to be exact) to be arrested and imprisoned. Hari examines a number of socioeconomic and sociological reasons for why drug use may appear to be more rampant in our impoverished areas, but suffice it to say that for law enforcement, finding people to arrest for drugs in these areas is easy pickings and no doubt goes a long way to calm the fears of their more affluent constituents and campaign contributors. (Arizona’s notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio is one law enforcement individual whose barbaric practices are highlighted in the book, including an account of a mentally ill female prisoner literally cooked in the heat of her outdoor cage after being left unattended by the guards.) Whether these practices cause racism or foment an implicit racial bias that already exists is a chicken or egg question outside the scope of this post. Our prison statistics speak for themselves, and the chickens have come home to roost in the distrust toward law enforcement among African Americans and others that is sparking riots in Ferguson, NYC and other cities across the country. As Senator Corey Booker was recently quoted as saying, “Fraternity houses are not being raided by police at the level you see with communities in inner cities.” I’ve hung out in a few frat houses, and I know this isn’t racist, it’s a statement of fact.
It’s time to recognize the longstanding injustice of this criminal approach to drug policy, with its collateral damage of billions of dollars wasted and lives lost, and consider another approach, namely compassion and treatment. Proponents of both criminalization and compassion may actually be splitting hairs over what is a very small percentage of our population. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “In 2012, an estimated 23.9 million Americans aged 12 or older—or 9.2 percent of the population—had used an illicit drug or abused a psychotherapeutic medication (such as a pain reliever, stimulant, or tranquilizer) in the past month.” Hari tells us in Chasing the Scream that of that 9.2% approximately 90% use drugs and/or alcohol recreationally without any problem. This means that 10% of users, or roughly 2.5 million people (less than 1% of the population), develop substance abuse problems or addictions. The enforcement side of the war must view that relatively small number as a winnable proposition, much in the same way that the hawks believed our wars in Vietnam and Iraq would be “slam dunks,” while the compassionate side questions why we spend so much and do so much harm to society overall when it’s more economically, and humanely, beneficial to treat such a small percentage of people instead of locking them up.
After nearly a century of waging war on this so-called criminal 10%, it’s time to tally up our wins and losses and declare defeat or…well, sorry, victory has long-since ceased to be even in the realm of possibility. If we were in any way successful after all these years, we would see a marked decrease in both drug use and drug-related criminal activity. The fact is that neither of these markers show any signs of slowing down. In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse 9.2% statistic is an increase from 8.3% in 2002, with the greatest increase reflected in the rise of marijuana use. Hari goes on to cite a number of experts and sociology studies that point out the rise in drug use under prohibition is all but inevitable. “[W]hen a popular product is criminalized, it does not disappear. Instead, criminals start to control the supply and sale of the product.” The criminals do this by creating what sociologists call a “culture of terror,” or as the Mexican cartels more bluntly put it, “plato o plomo” (silver or lead). Before long you have a police force that’s either bought off or completely outgunned, at which point it’s no wonder they resort to going after petty users doing their business out in the open on inner city street corners. Once the criminals take over, another sociological principle comes into play: the “iron law.” This is a law of the black market that states it’s more profitable to traffic in things that deliver the biggest bang in the smallest possible package. During Prohibition, it was easier and more profitable for bootleggers to traffic in liquor than beer. In the drug world, this translates to trafficking in harder drugs like heroin or crystal meth over something that’s more unwieldy (and incriminatingly pungent) like marijuana. Worse for the user, drug dealers have a nasty habit of cutting the drug with other substances to stretch their profits, knowing that a user is unlikely to report them to the cops for false advertising or damaged goods.
You have to wonder what satisfaction drug opponents get from their position when they are demonstrably on the wrong side of science and history. Is it economic? There’s certainly a lot of profit to be made from prosecuting the drug war, from police property seizures to the drug testing industry that’s cropped up to keep workers in line by inspecting their urine, hair and blood (privacy violation, anyone?) to the organizations that cash in on government contracts. Perhaps the satisfaction is a moral one that derives from doing your utmost to impose through tough love the clean lifestyle that you think is right for everyone (putting aside for now the question of who made you the arbiter of right and clean living). Even though reality and the course of human (and animal) history prove that the use of intoxicants can never be wiped out altogether, it must be sufficiently gratifying to beat the crap out of users just to be doing something. (This is the same mindset that believes you can bomb your way to peace and is about to get us into serious trouble with radical Islam and the Middle East.) It screams of older generations – you know, the same ones who walked seven miles in the snow to school – who spout an outmoded “spare the rod and spoil the child” belief that’s a reflection of more barbaric times when we didn’t know any better. How little we still know about human nature, or have learned from our previous national experiment in prohibition, is depressing enough to drive one to drink. Cracks are slowly beginning to appear in the armor, however, with states legalizing medicinal and recreational marijuana and adopting more treatment-based approaches to the drug issue. The irony that most vocal opponents of drugs and alcohol, and those in charge of enforcing our drug policies, fail to realize is that they are an increasingly negligible number as well, as recent polling data bears out.
Any armchair psychologist can plainly see that a primary driver for drug opponents is a need to control that which will not, and cannot, be controlled. Getting intoxicated for them is, in essence, a giving up or loss of control in the individual under the influence, and they can’t help but project their fear of such a state onto society at large. They fear that humanity is a cauldron of debauchery and amoral behavior that is forever on the verge of boiling over, and the only thing to save us is to put a lid on that shit so that one drop of poison does not spill out and doom us all to miserable lives on Skid Row. This is a classic case of denying an aspect of our biology that Dr. Andrew Weil declared over 40 years ago, “The ubiquity of drug use is so striking that it must represent a basic human appetite.” Hari cites the work of Professor Ronald K. Siegel to show that there is widespread intoxication in the animal kingdom as well. Siegel is quoted as saying, “In every country, in almost every class of animal, I found examples of not only the accidental but intentional use of drugs.” To think we can ever have a drug-free world, you must be high on drugs yourself.
But what might a world with legal drugs look like if not a hysterical scene straight out of Reefer Madness? Hari looks into a number of societies – Uruguay, Portugal, Amsterdam and the two states in the US, Colorado and Washington, where recreational marijuana is now legal – that have tried this experiment, and, shockingly, not one of them has seen huge numbers of their populations fall over themselves in alleyways with needles in their arms. One fear with legalization is that drug use will go through the roof, or that dealers will start preying on younger and younger children, but if anything drug use declines slightly in these societies. At the risk of oversimplifying, this is the result of a number of factors, not the least of which is a near complete elimination of the criminal element and “iron law” in drug trafficking, in conjunction with a more compassionate, rather than criminal, approach to their users and addicts. The hardcore addicts in these progressive places are brought into treatment that starts with an acceptance of them as valued members of society and provides supervised and regulated prescriptions of clean (not cut or corrupted) doses of their drug so as to avoid sickness and overdose. In addition, they receive supports in the form of counseling and job training to help them become (if they so desire) integrated into society by finding a productive purpose for their lives rather than an existence of rejection on the streets. A large number of addicts that receive this kind of support actually end up quitting their drug after 3-5 years. They don’t hasten their demise via unfettered access as most people are taught to expect after hearing of rats that, given the choice between cocaine and food, dose themselves repeatedly with cocaine until they collapse or die. As addiction specialist Dr. Bruce Alexander says in the book:
“Human beings only become addicted when they cannot find anything better to live for and when they desperately need to fill the emptiness that threatens to destroy them. The need to fill an inner void is not limited to people who become drug addicts, but afflicts the vast majority of people of the late modern era, to a greater or lesser degree.”
It turns out that for many people the use of drugs becomes a way to replace a need in humans that’s greater even than intoxication, which is connection, a sense of belonging and acceptance that exists in such short supply in today’s “every man for himself” society. This inner void is more common, and renders us all more susceptible to ways to fill it, than we care to admit.
What those who claim to be hard on crime fail to appreciate is that by locking drug users up in prison, most of them for low level possession, they are casting those individuals out of society by dooming any chances for them to become productive members of society again. Most of them will be unable to find jobs with a drug conviction on their records, and so they will invariably resort to other, less than legal, ways to get by. In other words, whatever hole they may have been trying to fill before with drugs just got a whole lot deeper. The same thing is happening with the push in conservative states like Tennessee, Florida, Wisconsin, Maine, Utah and Texas to drug test their welfare recipients – because everyone knows the reason these “takers” are on welfare in the first place is so they can use their welfare checks to buy drink and drugs, right? In Tennessee, they only had 37 people out of 16,000 public assistance recipients fail their drug test in the first six months of implementing this policy. If you do the math, that is an economic mistake of colossal proportions, due to the exorbitant cost of performing these tests to find the proverbial drug needle in the haystack. Once again, the prophesized legions of zombified drug addicts appear to be as chimerical as vote fraudsters and Cadillac welfare queens themselves, and yet our leaders refuse to release the grip their safety – or, in this case, sobriety – at any cost ideology has on them.
Meanwhile, the more affluent members of our society, the ones who don’t have to find their good time by standing openly on a street corner, are able to bypass prison and buy redemption for themselves and their families through rehab. This is illustrated in a story told toward the end of Chasing the Dream. Harry Anslinger, the man who almost singlehandedly whipped up the national appetite for the War on Drugs as a way to justify and generate funding for his Federal Bureau of Narcotics, came to know that an important member of Congress was a heroin addict. When he confronted the individual and advised him to stop, he was told, “I wouldn’t try to do anything about it, Commissioner. It will be the worse for you.” When the Congressman told him that he had no problem going to gangsters for the drug, no matter what Anslinger did, and that he didn’t care less if it became a public scandal or hurt the country, Anslinger relented and set up a safe, legal supply for him at a Washington, D.C. pharmacy, thereby making himself a drug dealer at the same time that he was the nation’s foremost drug warrior and a dealer. Years later when everyone involved was dead, Anslinger revealed the person to be Senator Joseph McCarthy. “Nobody ever believes the drug war should be waged against somebody they love,” Hari writes.
In a world where celebrities have used stints in rehab to reboot their careers, we must recognize how our current economic problems and its aftermath of widening income inequality and unemployment will only exacerbate the drive for intoxication (as the proliferation of stories in our area of meth labs and tweaker arrests will attest), which in turn will feed into the hands of the black market and drug cartels, which will then continue to fill our prisons with people (inordinate numbers of them minorities) with no future prospects for themselves or their children upon release. There really is something wrong with this picture, and our relentless push to jail our way to victory in this war on – and for – drugs is an addiction in itself. Everyone knows the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result.
As someone who has experienced both the agony and ecstasy of alcohol and drugs, I’ve never had a problem with the substances themselves or with anyone’s decision to use them. That is, I’ve never assumed that what’s right or wrong for me at any point in time is the same for another person. The reasons someone might have for using are, as far as I’m concerned, as personal and private as the religious beliefs or world views they choose to subscribe to, provided, as Thomas Jefferson put it, “they neither pick my pocket nor break my leg.” There are as many different reasons and ways of dealing with the difficulties in life as there are people on this planet, ways that extend far beyond the realm of mood- and mind-altering chemicals into food, television, gambling, shopping, porn and so on. You name it, and there’s an addiction to it. We can no more legislate a drug- (or addiction-) free world than we can get any two adherents of a particular faith to agree on its tenets. For the majority of my adult life, I have tried to use psychology and science to understand my own need to get out of my head, and I wish our leaders in society would do the same, rather than fall back on the lame assumption, without any scientific corroboration whatsoever, that the way they were brought up should be just fine for everyone else.
We can advance much further as a society by treating this as a public health issue, not a criminal one. By doing that we would, at the very least, convey the message to our citizens that everyone is valued and that we are not a society that leaves its people in need behind, or views anyone as “less than” for experiencing bumps in the road to which we are all susceptible. One can also imagine how this compassionate approach might also go a long way toward easing the current tensions between our minority and low-income citizens and the police who are sworn to protect and serve them. Free market advocates can be brought to salivate over the enormous streams of revenue that will pour into our public coffers and schools and treatment programs instead of into the hands of the drug cartels, as we’re seeing right now in Colorado. I’m not saying that this would usher in a new utopia, which would only be a mirror opposite fiction to a drug-free world. Wasn’t it Jesus who said, “The poor you will always have with you”? He could just as easily have been talking about the rummies and junkies in our midst. The verse in Mark goes on to say, “And you can help them any time you want.” Might that mean that being compassionate and helping is as much of a choice as doing drugs, while refusing to do so – in fact, employing billions of dollars, all manner of artillery and prisons to wage this futile fight – causes the kind of harm and damage to our fellow man that would appall the very one believers hide behind to judge them?