What a trip. You wouldn’t think America could get any higher on the subject of drugs than it did in 1986, the year of Len Bias, “Just Say No,” urinalysis, and the drug bill that was supposed to end all drug bills. No such luck. The national–and governmental–obsession with drugs has reached new heights this year. The Great Drug War of 1988, by no coincidence the year of congressional and presidential sweepstakes, is on. Here are a few dispatches from the front:
Item. On the presidential primary trail, Robert Dole calls for the death penalty for drug smugglers. George Bush, milking the drug terror for all it’s worth, raises the stakes the only way he can, urging the “swift execution” of smugglers. When asked how that might jibe with the constitutional guarantee of due process, Bush replies “I don’t know the answer to that. I’m not a lawyer.”
Item. Intravenous-drug abusers now make up a quarter of all HIV-virus carriers. With safe sex taking hold in the gay world, needle sharing is the leading means of AIDS transmission. The obvious way to protect drug users, their sexual partners, their children, and everyone else from the epidemic is to provide them with clean needles for the drugs they’re going to shoot anyway. The public conscience rises not in support of humane common sense but in outrage at this “endorsement” of drug use.
Item. Reports of youthful pot smoking aren’t the only grist for the campaign-smear mill. In Washington State, senatorial candidate Slade Gorton unleashes a ferocious TV ad accusing opponent Mike Lowry of supporting “legalizing marijuana in 1979”–solely because a student from the University of Washington’s Daily reported that Lowry told some folks at a community-college meeting that “he would support their quest to legalize marijuana” and argued that alcohol should not be banned because “prohibition of anything doesn’t work.” Lowry demands an apology, telling the Seattle Times he has “never been for legalization.”
Item. Stampeded by yet another election year, the House of Representatives passes, 375 to 30, yet another tough-talking Omnibus Drug Bill. In response to wide outrage over the killing of policemen and drug-enforcement agents by ruthless drug gangsters, it includes a death penalty for those who murder in the course of a drug enterprise. Funny thing is though, according to FBI statistics, from 1977 through 1986, precisely eight law enforcement officers (including those at the federal, state, and local levels) were killed in drug cases. When they kill, drug traffickers overwhelmingly tend to kill each other. Thus, Congress declares that killing a drug trafficker is one of the moist heinous crimes that can be committed. Call it the Drug Trafficker Protection Act. Given the hazards they already face at each other’s hands, it’s not likely to deter many traffickers from their fantastically profitable business, but it will deter countries that don’t sanction the death penalty from extraditing traffickers to the United States for punishment.
Welcome to the age of overkill, rhetorical and otherwise. The House drug bill, for instance, orders up to $10,000 in civil fines for possession of even small quantities of prohibited drugs–a blank check for prosecutors, who would be freed from the necessity of criminal trials and the burden of proving their cases beyond a reasonable doubt.
The Senate, only a third of whose members were up for reelection, subsequently provided its usual cleanup of the House’s work. It and a House-Senate compromise ameliorated many of the more extreme measures in the original House bill. Defendants can now appeal these civil fines for drug possession, asking instead for a criminal trial by jury. And judges now have discretion in assigning other penalties ordered by the House for drug convictions: withholding public housing, student loans, and professional licenses, which would save people from ruining their lives on drugs by leaving them nothing else to turn to. To save the addict, it was necessary to destroy him.
In the end, as its closing act, the 100th Congress passed a compromise bill closer to the more temperate Senate than the hysteric House draft. It eliminated the most conspicuously unconstitutional elements of the House bill: restrictions on habeas corpus; widespread mandatory drug testing; and an exemption to the exclusionary rule that would allow the admission of evidence obtained illegally but in “good faith” in drug cases. The Senate did, however, insert a pilot program for testing the pee of driver’s license applicants.
Under the compromise bill a killer must at the least be involved in drug trafficking (rather than just possession as in the House draft) to be eligible for the new death penalty. And a new cabinet-level “drug czar” will be anointed to coordinate the various fragmented, often antagonistic and redundant drug-war agencies. (The House proposed a weaker, subcabinet-level post.) Best of all, the final bill specifically prohibits the vice president from serving as drug czar, as George Bush did and Dan Quayle hoped to. The drug war is one several notable Reaganite disasters, along with environmental deregulation and contra support, in which Bush played a chief role.
The Senate took another big step toward sweet reason by proposing to balance expenditures for interdiction, eradication, and drug-law enforcement with outlays for treatment and education. In the last fiscal year enforcement and other measures against drug supply ate up 72 percent of the federal drug war chest, a percentage that would probably be much higher if hidden expenditures by the military, customs, and other agencies could be factored in (not to mention $5 billion a year in state and local drug-law enforcement). The Senate bill would reduce enforcement’s share to 50 percent in the first year (the level sought by Republicans) and 40 in the second (the Democratic target), leaving 60 percent for treatment and education to stem demand.
Nice as this sounds, however, it proved to be fiscal voodoo. In order to boost prevention and fund the enforcement increases mandated at the same time, $1.6 billion would have to be added to the current $3.5 billion drug budget. But Congress was pushing against its Gramm-Rudman budget ceiling, and only $500 million in new drug funding was finally assigned. When the going gets tough, the story has consistently been the same: as one federal prosecutor says, “It’s just a lot easier for government to get tough on law enforcement than to support treatment and education. I don’t know why that is.”
Arizona’s director of public safety Ray Milstead, a cop for 28 years and a former narcotics officer, puts it even more bluntly: “Instead of pumping more money into law enforcement, let’s spend it on education. We’ve got to have a truce, because our prisons are full.” Our lawmakers haven’t listened; from 1981 to 1987 they cut treatment and rehabilitation funding 40 percent (in real dollars), while more than doubling funds for interdiction.
Still the would-be drugbusters stomp about, trying to muster posses to ride out, hang the fiends high, and purge the land of demon dope. On one hand is despair at the failure of tried-and-untrue antidrug strategies; on the other hand is new hope for strategies that were widely scorned as defeatist and even destructive just a few months ago. No less a heresy than drug legalization is finally getting its hearing in the courts of policy and public opinion. What follows is an attempt to look at this radical prescription soberly. It makes a lot more sense than you might ever have thought.
Conventional ideological lines get muddied at once over the concept of legalization. For starters, it has not been embraced by the left. In his presidential-nomination campaign, Jesse Jackson did give eloquent voice to the frustration and fear of inner cities besieged by crack and crime. As a nominee he might have stolen the drug issue from Bush and turned it around. But beyond needling Bush for his links to General Noriega, Dukakis failed to take a stand. He and other liberals, terrified of looking soft on drugs and crime, hardly dare to question antidrug orthodoxy.
No, the calls for legalization or decriminalization have come first from the right: William F. Buckley, free-market economist Milton Friedman, the Thatcherite British newsmagazine the Economist, and of course the American Libertarian Party. They argue for it based on two principles. First, the libertarian one: drug use, as long as it does not entail actual crimes against persons or the property of others, is a private choice into which government has no right to intrude. Second, an economic one: drug prohibition wildly distorts the drug market, creating vastly inflated prices for the substances, huge, untaxed cash transfers from the drug-consuming to the drug-producing nations, and a vast criminal economy. The way to clean up this mess is to get government out, let the market find its natural price, and then, shhh, tax the heck out of it. Or, if you’re not ready to unleash drugs on the open market, follow the state-monopoly model of lotteries and liquor stores. It’s hardly a novel option; government has always depended on the profits of vice.
Academe is starting to take up the cause of legalization, too. This position was for most of the past 15 years the lonely province of American University law and justice professor Arnold Trebach. In The Heroin Solution, The Great Drug War, and many other books and articles, Trebach has argued persuasively for looser controls on and legal medical use of heroin, marijuana, and other banned substances, and tighter controls on tobacco and alcohol. He has been joined by a growing, vocal academic minority, in particular Princeton public affairs professor Ethan Nadelmann, whose articles this year in Foreign Affairs and the neoconservative Public Interest have stirred a firestorm of debate.
The academics might have continued arguing with each other till the tropical poppy fields froze over, but for the startling legitimacy granted the legalization case by a few brave politicians. Two members of the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control, James Scheuer of New York and Pete Stark of California, have broken ranks to urge consideration of all drug-policy options, including even what Scheuer calls “the L and the D words,” legalization and decriminalization. Stark even urges outright decriminalization of all drug possession. In New York, state senator Joseph Galiber of the Bronx, who represents one of the most drug-afflicted constituencies in the nation, has introduced sweeping legalization legislation.
But the legalization option has been legitimized and publicized most of all by Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke, a spokesman uniquely equipped for this message. Though educated at Yale, Oxford, and Harvard Law, Schmoke is no pointy-headed elitist conservative eager to opiate the masses to make them stop menacing the upper classes. He is black, a Baltimore native, and fought his way to heresy in the trenches of that city’s drug wars. After a stint on President Carter’s domestic-policy staff, Schmoke prosecuted federal drug cases as an assistant U.S. attorney. In 1982 he was elected state’s attorney for Baltimore. Astounded at the volume of drug cases, he created a full-time narcotics unit and claimed one of the highest incarceration rates for such cases in the nation. “I am not soft on either drug use or drug dealers,” Schmoke insists. “I am a soldier in the war on drugs.” As a soldier, he watched that war being lost and began to ask how it should be fought.
Last spring Schmoke brought that question before the National Conference of Mayors, calling for a national debate on legalization and decriminalization. Mayors Marion Barry of Washington, D.C., and Donald Fraser of Minneapolis joined the call. The House Select Committee on Narcotics consented to convene hearings on legalization at the end of September. Its chairman, Charles Rangel of Harlem, a more conventional drug warrior, publicly hoped that “when the questions are answered, the very dangerous idea of legalization of drugs will be put to rest once and for all.” But Schmoke, after massive study of the issue over the summer, progressed from asking questions to advocacy: “The case for decriminalization is overwhelming. . . . Our current policy is destined to fail.”
That policy, as Schmoke puts it, “can be stated with almost childlike simplicity. Our policy is zero use of all illicit drugs all the time. . . . It’s a policy that is both unambiguous and unimaginative. It is also unattainable.” It has also been profoundly ambivalent as to means, veering cyclically between attempts to cut off the supply of and cut off the demand for drugs.
The United States first stumbled into drug prohibition through a process as haphazard and hysterical as today’s policymaking. It first tried to restrict supply with a 1909 ban on the importation of opium for smoking. (Several states had already taken such action, prompted by disapproval of interracial fraternization and supposed debauchery in Chinese opium dens rather than by fear of addiction.) As usual with attempts at prohibition–notably with alcohol–the plan backfired. The net effect of the opium ban was to make many opium smokers start injecting the much stronger morphine and heroin (the “hero drug” originally developed as a cure for morphine addiction). Even after morphine and heroin were likewise restricted, they remained attractive and lucrative for smugglers because they are so compact and concealable. The pattern continues today, where interdiction encourages traffickers to switch from bulky, smelly marijuana to cocaine and heroin.
The first comprehensive U.S. drug law, the Harrison Act of 1914, seemed worded to control supply in a fashion very like that proposed by today’s advocates of medical heroin and cocaine dispensation. Importers, manufacturers, physicians, and pharmacists were still to be able to supply opiates and cocaine, under tight regulation. In that era of temperance, however, public opinion and prosecutorial discretion soon interpreted regulation as an outright ban. Doctors and pharmacists, weary of public stigma and police harassment, stopped dispensing heroin and other controlled substances to addicts. In 1922, the maximum penalty for drug violations was doubled from five to ten years, and continued to climb until the 1950s, when some states instituted death penalties and mandatory life sentences for repeat offenses.
A Dr. Harry Campbell visited the States from Great Britain in 1922 and reported a situation eerily like today’s:
“In the United States of America a drug addict is regarded as a malefactor even though the habit has been acquired through the medicinal use of the drug, as in the case, e.g., of American soldiers who were gassed and otherwise maimed in the Great War. . . . In consequence of this stringent law a vast clandestine commerce in narcotics has grown up in that country. The small bulk of these drugs renders the evasion of the law comparatively easy, and the country is overrun by an army of peddlers who extort exorbitant prices from their helpless victims. It appears that not only has the Harrison Law failed to diminish the number of drug takers–some contend, indeed, that it has increased their number–but, far from bettering the lot of the opiate addict, it has actually worsened it; for without curtailing the supply of the drug it has sent the price up tenfold, and this has the effect of impoverishing the poorer class of addicts and reducing them to a condition of such abject misery as to render them incapable of gaining an honest livelihood.”
After observing the U.S. experience, Britain decided to continue the medical prescription of heroin for addiction and other needs. In 1914, after decades of open dispensation and epidemic use, the United States had a little over 200,000 heroin, morphine, and opium addicts. Today, after 74 years of prohibition, it has almost 500,000 heroin addicts. The estimated numbers of regular marijuana smokers (about 18 million), cocaine users (5.5 million), and cocaine addicts (600,000) have climbed even more dramatically.
Until the 1960s, enforcement tended to target drug users and small-time vendors (who tend to be users) rather than traffickers, in part because the former were more numerous and vulnerable. This attack on the demand side broke down in the face of the 1960s counterculture; there was neither prison space nor public will for locking up millions of young middle-class potheads. What seemed an unarguable battle cry arose: bust the big traffickers, send out the military to seal the borders, cut off the supplies!
That first great War on Drugs began during the peak of the Vietnam war. By 1973, Nixon had seen the light at the end of the tunnel and declared, “We have turned the corner on drug addiction in the United States.” There’s nothing novel about the current war, except its costs and the range of forces–including the FBI, the CIA, and the military–that the Reagan administration has been willing to deploy. Echoing Nixon, Reagan last year declared the drug war one of the great successes of his tenure.
The drug war bears striking parallels to the Vietnam war. It is a war we are neither willing nor able to wage as total war, to a final dreary victory: an all-out law-enforcement attack on 30 million consumers of illicit drugs, the moral equivalent of bombing Vietnam back to the Stone Age. Aside from the cost and the reaction, where would we put the culprits? The federal prison system is already bursting with 44,000 inmates, a third of them drug-law violators. Fifteen years hence, it is expected, the system will need to hold 100,000 to 150,000, according to Princeton’s Nadelmann–half of them in for drug raps. That doesn’t count the 80,000 state and county inmates jailed for drugs, or the many thousands more jailed for “drug-related” violence–stealing to buy drugs and so on. And despite avowals of going for the big fish, more than three-quarters of the 750,000 or so drug arrests each year are for simple possession, usually of marijuana, rather than for dealing, trafficking, or manufacture.
Like the generals in Vietnam, we measure our drug-war “victories” not in strategic gains (we haven’t made any) but in body counts: pleas bargained, trafficking rings broken, and tons of contraband seized, along with sundry planes, yachts, and Porsches. At this statistical game, our police, prosecutors, and customs guards grow ever more efficient. Their booty is staggering–40 tons of cocaine confiscated at the borders in 1987. (Before you cheer too loudly, imagine all the rapists and car thieves our watchdogs could catch, and all the real intelligence our agents could gather, if we’d free them from drug work.) All the while, other, younger dealers, other, more ingenious smugglers, and other, larger sources of supply keep reappearing to replace those cut off. By a General Accounting Office estimate, 178 tons of cocaine, 12 tons of heroin, and 600,000 tons of marijuana got to market in 1987. As U.S. Attorney Gene Anderson of Seattle, Washington admits, “Body counts don’t really matter. In the end, we’re just fighting a holding action. We’re taking a lot of prisoners, but we’re not winning the war.”
Each strategy for cutting off supply falls down against what Nadelmann calls “the push-down/pop-up factor”: whatever drug crop you push down will pop up somewhere else. Crop substitution–paying and persuading peasants to grow green beans and coffee instead of coca and opium–may have some merit as backdoor development aid, but we can’t bribe all the world’s farmers. More coercive forms of eradication tend to be counterproductive in obvious and unexpected ways. Spraying paraquat on Mexican pot fields merely worked to poison some campesinos and domestic consumers. Sending the helicopter gunships out to destroy Bolivian coca labs bolsters militaristic tendencies, stirs anti-yanqui resentment, and gives corrupt generals a second chance to cash in on U.S. drug-war aid as on drug-traffic profits.
Peru’s Sendero Luminoso guerrillas, for instance, have a recruiting field day with peasants who are horrified to see the troops burning the coca they’ve grown and used for centuries, and which is now their best cash crop. It’s no easy task to explain why some North Americans want so much to destroy what millions of other North Americans will pay so much money for.
Even when eradication and substitution succeed in one country, they merely stimulate drug production in others. Turkey, the main source of heroin in the 1970s, undertook an unusually thorough and severe poppy eradication. Burma, Thailand, Mexico, and other countries quickly filled the opium gap. Left to their own devices, Turkish farmers returned to growing poppies, too. Paraquat-tainted Mexican marijuana was soon replaced by much more potent and trustworthy sinsemilla from glens and basements in the States.
Interdiction is an equally wishful strategy. In 1986 the House of Representatives passed an amendment to the drug mega-bill ordering the president to have the military “seal the borders” within 45 days. The Senate rejected this vain demand after Sam Nunn sneered that it was “the equivalent of passing a law saying the president shall, by Thanksgiving, find a cure for the common cold.” The choice of entries and smuggling techniques is virtually limitless. “We’ve used AWACS aircraft, P-3 Orion aircraft, and a tethered observation balloon to watch for smugglers,” says Arizona’s disillusioned top cop Milstead. “But only 10 to 20 percent of drugs come into Arizona by air. The smugglers land a little short of the border and shotgun the stuff in backpacks, automobiles, train cars, tile trucks, produce trucks. Interdiction simply doesn’t work.” At best it acts on smugglers as wolves act on elk, culling the weak and inept and inspiring the remainder to better defenses.
Even if interdiction were to succeed perfectly and keep all cocaine and opiates out of the United States, it wouldn’t eliminate the abuse that goes with them. Consumers would switch to manufactured substitutes. Various “designer drugs”–synthetic opiate analogs–may be more potent than heroin and, with a sufficient market to support large production, much cheaper. Methedrine and other amphetamines–which, though not as addictive, can be as ravaging of mind and body as cocaine–have for decades alternated with cocaine as the stimulants of choice, according to shifts in price and supply. In the northwest, underground amphetamine labs are becoming so widespread that concern has risen over the toxic pollution they produce.
Only in their most intoxicated moments have the drugbusters claimed that interdiction and other enforcement could eliminate drugs. They really just hope to reduce supplies and force prices high enough to discourage demand. As for reducing supply, interdiction has manifestly failed. Only marijuana falls into shortages these days. For hard drugs, the economic incentive is just too great. By Reuter’s calculations, the hill of coca leaf needed to extract a kilogram of cocaine costs just $1,000–still much bigger money than an Andean farmer can make off potatoes. By the time it gets to the Bahamas or Mexico, that kilo is worth about $15,000; it finally reaches the retail market at $250,000.
Moreover, the price is falling. The current $50 to $70 for a gram of cocaine is a bargain compared to $120 for a much more adulterated gram a decade ago. Heroin has likewise gotten much stronger, causing the rash of black-tar overdoses a few years ago.
So the word from the frontlines of this century’s longest-running war is grim and getting grimmer. The dealers and traffickers are outpacing the greatest mobilization against contraband in history. All our efforts only succeed in sustaining an enormous black market. We spend over $10 billion a year on drug enforcement (at all levels) so that they can make $140 billion. Even defense contractors don’t get such a sweet deal from the government.
We pay the costs of this futile war in lots of other ways, too. Drug abusers affect the rest of us most directly by stealing our VCRs, tape decks, and wallets in order to buy drugs that the law makes expensive. The law-abiding majority in the inner cities must live amid brazen, ubiquitous drug dealing. What grieves them most is the constant threat of violence and the sense of violation and intimidation that the drug biz brings: trigger-happy Vice Lords and El Rukns swaggering down the street, indiscriminate drive-by shootings, crack houses armed like bunkers. These plagues result from competition for the illicit market.
And it goes on: the violence visited on the citizens of Colombia, the suborning of entire governments in Bolivia, bizarre foreign-policy entanglements like Bush’s tango with Noriega, and the worst U.S. police corruption (over 100 prosecuted cases a year) since Prohibition. Anticipating just that danger, J. Edgar Hoover kept the FBI out of drug investigations for half a century. No sooner did the Reagan administration drag the Bureau into the drug war than its first known case of bribe taking surfaced.
Add all of this up and you are about to make the first irrefutable argument for legalization: it’s not surrendering to the drug traffickers, it’s the only way to beat them. To strangle the fish, dry up their sea of money.
That may be logical, but the practical results of adopting such a policy are a long way from how legalization looks on paper. What would be the costs to the health, wealth, and morale of the rest of society? Opponents of legalization raise an ominous list of arguments and forecasts; here are some of them, followed by counterarguments:
Legalization would be morally wrong. Obviously, legitimizing use of demon drugs like cocaine and heroin sticks in the craw. But almost no religious and ethical traditions, except Islam and some Christian strains, say using mood-altering substances is inherently immoral. In many traditions, certain types of chemical intoxication, carefully and purposefully entered into, are seen as necessary and instructive holy states, bringing worshipers closer to their gods through contemplation or jubilation. The public sanctions the use of hundreds of mood alterers, from coffee and aspirin to alcohol and Valium. Judgments about the use of each should be based on their effects on individual physical and mental health. One person’s soothing glass of wine or joint, or occasional eye-opener of LSD or toot of coke, is another person’s poison.
Legalization would send the wrong message to potential victims of drugs, especially the young. It certainly could; great effort would be required to make clear that we don’t endorse something that we admit the law cannot effectively prohibit. (Abortion is a case in point.) We already need to make that point clearer, because we’ve been sending the wrong message for decades in our open toleration of the use of alcohol and tobacco–which are more dangerous than most of the controlled substances. Alcohol is involved in two-fifths of motor-vehicle fatalities and half of violent crimes; it causes some 100,000 deaths a year and contributes to 100,000 more. Nicotine is at least as addictive as heroin; smoking kills about 320,000 Americans a year. By contrast, the 1985 death toll from all illicit drugs together was 3,562, with 643 involving cocaine.
When we reinstated legal alcohol, we knew it was a dangerous drug but realized that the dangers of legal use were outweighed by the penalties of prohibition: crime and violence, corruption, poisoning from bathtub gin, the immoderation that goes with surreptitious indulgence. But we failed to attach a suitable program of education and warning as to alcohol’s dangers. We are now catching up and sending the right messages about alcohol and tobacco–with impressive results in moderation with the former and abstinence from the latter.
We can make a better start with any other recreational drugs we allow into the legal market through a conscientious system of consumer information and warning labels. (“The Surgeon General has determined that frequent smoking of marijuana may lower your sperm count, fuzz up your chromosomes, and make you laugh helplessly at stupid jokes.”) We can start now by banning all advertising of recreational drugs–including alcohol and tobacco. We could also institute severe laws against the sale of all recreational drugs, including tobacco, to kids. We should certainly ban cigarette machines, which are a blatant invitation to underage smokers. In these ways, legalization can be coupled with serious efforts to cut down usage, paradoxical as that may seem on the surface.
In addition, legalization and the elimination of the illicit market would silence a terribly seductive and destructive message that’s now getting through to inner-city kids: that drugs spell wealth and power, being the most (and sometimes the only) visible means of upward mobility. Indeed, harsh penalties induce dealers to employ children, who are subject to milder juvenile codes or no prosecution at all.
Other countries have tried legalization and abandoned it; why can’t we learn from their mistakes? Time to clear away some myths. The two examples of failed legalization most often cited–those of Britain and the Netherlands–are neither full legalization nor clear failures. Britain’s system of prescribing heroin for addicts, many of them respectable citizens who became hooked while using it as a surgical painkiller, worked pretty well for half a century. In the 1950s and 1960s the system, which allowed any general practitioner to prescribe the stuff, started leaking. Patients got excessive prescriptions and sold their surplus in a black market abetted by the rise of the general drug culture and, as elsewhere, imported heroin. But the notorious British heroin “epidemic” was nothing next to the entirely bootleg U.S. epidemic that occurred at the same time; in 1967 the Home Office counted 1,290 “nontherapeutic” addicts. The government cracked down, restricting heroin prescription first to specially licensed doctors, then to addiction clinics that provided counseling and close scrutiny. The Brits didn’t “ban” prescription heroin. They phased it out in favor of the American model, methadone–a synthetic opiate that staves off heroin withdrawal. Taken orally, methadone lasts longer than injected heroin and doesn’t give the same high. (The Brits, unlike the Americans, also provide methadone for injection.) Some addicts and physicians believe it is more enervating and harder to kick than heroin.
None of the no-no drugs have been formally legalized in the Netherlands, either. Its official penalty for personal marijuana possession, 30 days, is stiffer than the decriminalized fine of some U.S. cities. But the Dutch like to keep their vices out in the open where they can be monitored. They make a tolerance policy of not enforcing the pot laws, or cracking down on other personal drug possession; marijuana and hashish are sold in cafes. Contrary to a dire report in Time, L.J.S. Wever of the Dutch Welfare, Health, and Cultural Affairs Ministry reports considerable success from this policy. It has succeeded in “separating” the marijuana and heroin markets “in order to prevent soft drug users from becoming hard drug users.” Drug use has leveled off, and users on average are older. Tolerance helps draw heroin addicts into drug-free treatment centers. That and widespread needle exchange make for a much lower percentage of junkies among AIDS cases (4 percent) than in the rest of Europe (17 percent). The Dutch report just half as many drug-related deaths on average as in the rest of Europe. Some authorities propose lifting restrictions on all drugs as they have on marijuana.
Wouldn’t legalization encourage many more people to take drugs? Certainly more people who now eschew drug experimentation out of respect for or fear of the law or because of lack of convenient access would try more drugs. More might continue to use some drugs. Whether more would abuse drugs is problematic. To steer around the pitfalls of legalization and decriminalization, we will have to learn to distinguish between controlled, responsible use and compulsive, self-destructive abuse of all drugs, just as we distinguish between use and abuse of alcohol.
We may decide that some drugs–say, angel dust and crack–are simply not amenable to safe use. We may also be forced to make some startling admissions. Heroin, for example, is a relatively benign substance, causing no organic damage to compare with that caused by heavy alcohol or tobacco use. Its main ill effects are constipation, brief drowsy euphoria, and of course addiction–plus the contagion, abscesses, and collapsed veins that result from improper injection, and overdoses from unmeasured dosage and potency. Remove the stigma, poverty, and general desperation that result from heroin’s illegality, and some addicts are able to function perfectly well–such as the British novelist Anthony Burgess, a registered addict for decades, and a millionaire investment whiz who claims he can forecast the market better while high on smack.
Then, too, legalization would undercut some of the attraction of drugs, especially for the young, disposing of the allure of prohibition and rebellion and dispelling the glamour of an exclusive underground subculture.
A related objection to the legalization is the charge that marijuana is a “gateway” to harder stuff. That case is overstated, and alcohol and tobacco are more universal “gateways” that precede use of harder drugs. The vast majority of marijuana smokers do not proceed to abuse other drugs, or even to abuse marijuana. But pot does provide an initiation into the criminal subculture; kids buying it learn how to make an illegal connection and where to score other drugs.
Chuck Pillon, a former Seattle police sergeant driven from the force because of his iconoclastic zeal in attacking drug dealing, sees the real, and more dangerous, “gateway” syndrome on the supply side. “Kids start out at 12 or 13 as marijuana couriers and then move on to the hard-drug business. The cash flow from marijuana funds them for other things.” While vehemently believing other drug legalization is “sheer madness,” Pillon believes it’s time to decriminalize weed. “We can no longer afford to wrestle with trying to drive marijuana out of our system. When people can grow the plant at home, engage in private barter and giving–what’s the problem?” Alaska reports no noticeable increase in marijuana use or related problems since it decriminalized the stuff.
Any drugs that we cannot “drive out of our system” we must learn to live with. The compelling argument for legalization, in the words of sociologist and drug-abuse scholar Roger Roffman, is “legalize the drugs and society will find its own normative system to live with them, the way it’s learned to live with alcohol.” (Roffman himself is not ready to endorse full-scale legalization, only decriminalization of personal possession.) Trouble is, how long does it take for society to strike a norm with unfamiliar substances that can be dangerous and addictive?
On the scary side, most Eskimo and Indian groups have not struck such a balance with alcohol after a century or so of exposure, and are ravaged by its ill physical and social effects. Cultural dislocation and particular genetic factors, resulting from long isolation from alcohol, may have made many Native Americans especially vulnerable to it. Various Asian and Mediterranean cultures have had thousands of years to establish their patterns of moderate alcohol use. But the United States has come around to largely moderate use in a much shorter time. Two and even one hundred years ago, drinking was much more nearly synonymous with drunkenness than it is today. The quantities of whiskey swilled down in the Colonies and the Wild West leave one wondering how anyone could see straight enough to tame the frontier.
The 1960s counterculture left more than its share of drug victims, but it also provided a hopeful example of rapid accommodation to moderate use. Around 1966, the psycho wards and drop-in centers were filled with LSD freak-outs. Five years later, these cases had nearly disappeared, and crisis clinics were fishing about for something else to justify their grants. Pundits declared that hallucinogens had been driven out of style and off the market. In fact, they were, and remain, very much with us, but absorbed into less visible, more informed usage. Millions of people just got tired of heavy acid dropping and pot smoking and went on to grad school and other things, with maybe a little weekend indulgence on the side.
Education, antidrug advertising, and other voluntary methods seem to work better to deter destructive drug use than prohibition (though prohibition may be more effective against widespread moderate use). The great, though unfinished, American success story in reforming destructive drug habits is cigarette smoking. Through persuasion rather than coercion, the percentage of Americans who smoke has dropped from 41 to 26.
One of the marvels of the illicit drug boom is that people who might worry about preservatives and cholesterol in their food have been willing to play chemical roulette with outlaw concoctions. Many bad “LSD” and “mescaline” trips were really taken on speed and PCP. Legalization, regulation, and labeling would end such misrepresentations, as well as accidental overdoses.
Licit drug use can lead to restraint and measured dosage, while illicit use lends an urgency that impels toward excess. Americans have consciously shifted to lower doses of tobacco and alcohol: low-tar cigarettes and beer and wine in place of spirits. Meanwhile, they’ve shifted to sinsemilla marijuana, with ten times as much active THC as the old Acapulco Gold, and much faster acting and more dangerous free-base rock cocaine. For centuries Asians and South Americans got along just fine on, respectively, mild opium and coca. But attempts to restrict those vegetable substances, and the growth of export markets for their concentrated derivatives, have nurtured epidemics of addiction to heroin in Nepal and Pakistan and to cocaine and highly poisonous coca-residue paste in Ecuador and Colombia.
Legalization is elitist and racist. By this argument, advanced most fervently by Newsweek, proponents of legalization would consign the underclass to a perpetual hell of addiction in order to free the rest of the populace from the threat of crime. But the inner cities are already awash in expensive crack and other drugs, and all the violence and waste that go with high prices. Inexpensive crack is not the solution in itself. But by freeing our attention and resources from futile enforcement, we can begin to attack the immense and complex problems of lousy education, unemployment, fragmented families, and internalized racism that nurture a growing and entrenched underclass. As Dr. Richard Blum observes in Horace Judson’s Heroin Addiction in Britain, drugs “are the chemical tracer that diagnoses the problems of society. An avenue of discovery for the doctor and sociologist.”
Legalization would be terribly difficult to implement consistently, given the wide differences in state laws and customs. All the better. Let the federal government pull back from drug regulation and encourage the states to set their own rules, as they do with alcohol, and find their own “normative patterns.” The various experiments will tell us much more about what (perhaps what different) approaches work.
Reasonable as all these counterarguments for legalization may seem, they still butt up against a void of unknowable consequences. Drugbuster Pillon puts the dilemma piquantly: “If we’re going to legalize cocaine, put your kid first in line when the state starts to sell it.” Immediate blanket legalization of all illicit drugs is a terrifying prospect. We might well adjust eventually to ready, cheap access to every sort of high, but too many of us would be kids set loose in a candy store; the initial casualties could be high.
Decriminalization of personal possession has more visceral appeal; why penalize the victims of drugs by making them the victims of the law? Zero tolerance and “user accountability” are so manifestly unfair and disproportionate that they will only encourage public receptivity to decriminalization. So long as some interdiction were maintained to keep prices up, decriminalization would probably not boost drug abuse, though it would encourage more experimentation. But neither it nor any other half measures short of legalization will achieve the longed-for ends of getting the guns, gangsters, and corruption out of the drug market and restoring neighborhood and geopolitical security.
Legalization is thus the end we should work toward, though we’re not ready to embrace it yet. How can we start preparing for the burdens of responsibility that it would impose?
First and most important, we must undertake unstinting development of drug treatment, rehabilitation, and education. The Senate’s 50-50 split is not enough; let’s start by switching all eradication and all but a minimum of interdiction funds to these more constructive measures. As it stands now, only one in ten addicts who seek public treatment receives it. According to John Edgell, legislative, assistant to California congressman Pete Stark, “Massachusetts is the only state that offers treatment upon request, and Massachusetts has the lowest crime rate in the nation.” (Not true, though it has less crime than most industrial states.) Sure, various treatment and education approaches have proven to be hooey, some of them very pricey and over-hyped hooey. But we’re also learning which ones work, and how well they can work. Some of the best cost just a tenth to a fifth as much as imprisonment.
On those lines, we should make methadone maintenance available upon request, rather than requiring proof of a year’s heroin addiction (and indoctrination in the criminal culture). We should undertake closely monitored trials in actual heroin maintenance, serving addicts in various regions and economic classes, and compare the results. And we should provide clean needles for every intravenous drug user; banning paraphernalia is a bluenose crusade that no one should have to die for.
Heroin is three times as potent as morphine, with fewer side effects; it may be the best remedy for severe cancer pain. Britain has long used it and whatever else works for pain (including the famous hospice “cocktails” of heroin and cocaine); Canada has recently reinstated heroin as a painkiller. Marijuana can provide unparalleled relief for glaucoma and the nausea of chemotherapy. And yet both remain federal Schedule One drugs, forbidden as having no medically redeeming value whatsoever. Both should be available by prescription to patients in need. And research into medical applications of these and other forbidden drugs should no longer be blocked or snarled in red tape.
We should take a hint from Alaska, Chuck Pillon, and common sense, and decriminalize small-scale possession, growing, and exchange of marijuana. We should test legal production and sale–perhaps through state liquor stores–and track their effect on local use (among adults and children), illicit prices, auto accident rates, and other indicators. Legal, restricted sale could hardly let more of the stuff get to kids than the underground market provides; as it is, they can score grass or crack more easily than beer. It’s absurd to squander overburdened police, court, and jail resources on a nonaddicting drug we’ve largely learned to live with, even if we won’t admit it.
We need to get tough where tough makes sense: on cigarette and other drug advertising, on driving under the influence of marijuana and other intoxicants, on the sale of tobacco and other drugs to juveniles. We must have these weapons in place, along with our treatment and social-service infrastructures, before undertaking largescale legalization. And we must undertake a basic change of viewpoint: to see drug abuse as a medical and social problem, with medical and social solutions, rather than a target for “an all-out war, like World War II,” which is what Ben Gilman, a Republican on the House Select Committee on Narcotics, calls for.
To get anywhere, we must get the drug issue out of the sweaty hands of congressmen who stand for election every two years. Only a more impartial and independent authority will dare voice incendiary truths. Baltimore mayor Schmoke calls for “a high-level commission to study the potential impact of decriminalization” and design policies based on the specific dangers of each drug–rather than a blanket declaration of war. Even some hard-liners like Congressman Gilman call for a top-flight commission to develop some kind of better drug policy. The new act’s provision of a “drug czar” to command the Great War could also help, if the right czar were chosen. Here’s a second to the New Republic’s nomination of Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who has led us to a rational attack upon the dangers of tobacco, alcohol, and AIDS. Under a general like him, we may finally start fighting drug abuse instead of waging war on drug users.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.