Thursday, November 1, 2007

So crazy it just might work...

Some things you get tired of writing about because after a while it’s like pounding your head against a wall.

The War on Drugs is one of them. But I can’t help it. I have to keep saying it. The War on Drugs is folly, a stupendous waste of resources.

The U.S. has just agreed to send Mexico $1.4 billion dollars to help fight drug trafficking. This comes in the wake of a serious escalation in drug-gang violence in Mexico that has taken a toll on journalists, politicians and law enforcement officers, not to mention innocent bystanders. The aid will go for aircraft, scanning equipment, communications systems, technical assistance, training, the whole panoply of material and know-how that has been deployed in the fight against the drug trade in the U.S. My guess is that all that equipment and training will have approximately the same effect it’s had here at home. Meaning, not much. Last time I looked, we still had a “drug problem”.

I put it in quotes because what it really is is a drug prohibition problem. That is, the violence and corruption are effects not of the drugs themselves, but of their illegal status.

It’s an old argument. It seems self-evident to some of us, but others are horrified that anyone could even think of legalizing cocaine, heroin and other harmful drugs. There’s a deep, deep conceptual divide between those who favor legalization and those who favor ever more intense prosecution of the drug war.

I’m not sure how to bridge that divide. It must go to the heart of our most basic assumptions. I’m one of the ones that thinks it’s foolish to try to police what people ingest in their pursuit of pleasure. I look at the historical example of Prohibition, which made Al Capone a millionaire, and see an irresistible analogy with the modern prohibition of cocaine, which turned a handful of Colombian street toughs into world-class tycoons. The violence and the corruption and the staggering enrichment of scoundrels which are the most flagrant evils associated with drugs have nothing to do with what happens to your brain when you snort cocaine or inject heroin. They are, exclusively, effects of the fact that to do so is illegal. And that’s easy to fix.

None of which is to deny that drugs can have disastrous effects on individuals. At this point the usual response of the drug warriors is to start cataloguing the horrific consequences of drug use—the addiction and psychosis and subversion of personality and all the rest. As if that settled things.

My shift in thinking about drugs started when I asked a friend who worked in drug rehab at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago what the most dangerous drug out there was, expecting her to say heroin or PCP or something similar. Without batting an eye she replied, “Alcohol.”

When I was in college, I could not help but notice that the most spectacular incidents of vandalism, aggression, impaired driving, sexual misconduct and general recklessness, not to mention serial vomiting, all involved alcohol. I have a brother who is a police officer; he estimates that ninety percent of his calls involve alcohol abuse. I have friends whose lives have been severely impaired by alcoholism, to the point of job loss, long stints in rehab, financial ruin, health collapse and family breakdown. Why isn’t alcohol illegal?

Because we tried that, and all we got was Al Capone. We came to our senses and realized that criminalizing a substance merely puts the traffic in that substance securely in the hands of the most ruthless elements of society. It transforms a public health problem into a public safety problem. It empowers thugs. It creates vast criminal fortunes. It creates failed states by requiring that a country’s most valuable crops be guarded by private armies.

None of these things is inevitable. They are direct consequences of our refusal to treat the harmful effects of cocaine, heroin and other drugs the same way that we treat the harmful effects of alcohol, namely, as health problems or problems of private conduct.

I don’t know why this isn’t obvious to everyone. Some people whose judgment I respect are strongly for the continued prohibition of drugs. I don’t understand their reasoning. But given the utter failure of our ever-escalating efforts in the extraordinarily expensive Drug War to erase or even significantly diminish the use of these drugs, what do we have to lose by giving legalization a try? We might have more addicts, but we’d certainly have less violence.

How much worse off could we be?

Sam Reaves

No comments: