Do We Need a War On Drugs?
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, January 13, 2002
We all make mistakes. Countries and societies are no exception. The only difference is that when we as individuals make mistakes, the damage we do is (usually at least, thankfully) limited to ourselves and our immediate circle of family and friends. When societies screw up, the damage wrought in mayhem and misery, shattered lives, and increased suffering, can come back to haunt us, years later.
One of our society’s big mistakes of the past was the period of Prohibition, between 1920 and 1933, when well-meaning crusaders (some of them from within our own Unitarian and Universalist movements) managed to get the outlawing of alcohol written into the U.S. Constitution, and the production, distribution, and consumption of alcoholic beverages were banned throughout the United States.
During that fourteen-year period, our country saw a huge increase in crime, violence, corruption, not to mention death from poisoned liquor. It also saw the per capita consumption of stronger liquors like whiskey (as opposed to weaker ones like beer) actually increase.
Federal funding for law enforcement efforts against alcohol was increased by five times during the 1920s. The prison population quadrupled, and two-thirds of the country’s inmates were imprisoned for alcohol-related offenses. But the national murder rate increased steadily throughout the period of Prohibition (then it decreased steadily for eleven years following the repeal of Prohibition, even though we were in the midst of the Great Depression). As one writer has said, “The only phase of Prohibition that worked was when we ended it.”
Making mistakes is a tragic, but inevitable part, of the human experience. What’s really stupid is not learning from the mistakes we have already made before.
The present “War on Drugs”—the Prohibition of our generation—provides us with some even more spectacular statistics. As that darling of the conservatives, William F. Buckley, Jr. wrote in an article in his journal, the National Review:
“We are speaking of a plague that consumes an estimated $75 billion per year in public money, exacts an estimated $70 billion per year from consumers, is responsible for nearly 50% of the million Americans who are today in jail, occupies an estimated 50% of the trial time of the judiciary, and takes the time of 400,000 policemen—yet [it is] a plague for which no cure is at hand, nor in prospect.”
The plague of which he speaks, Buckley emphasizes, is not the use of drugs itself, but rather our ill-conceived national war against them.
In 1970, President Richard Nixon formally declared that America was at war against drugs. Since that time, the official policy of our government has been to take whatever steps were necessary to establish ours as a “drug free society”. That’s what’s said, any way…
But wait a minute: Do we really want a “drug free society”? I don’t think so. In this new medical age of “psychopharmacology” in which we are now in (psychopharmacology: that’s quite a mouthful), drugs like Prozac and its cousins are being used extensively to treat depression and other mental health illnesses. Xanax, or its cousins, help people sleep. Millions of Americans, perhaps, take prescription drugs to help them lose weight. I would bet that if I were to take a survey here this morning, a majority of us would have to admit that we’re “on” some kind of drugs—to reduce tension or stress, or to lower our blood pressure or cholestrol levels. Some of us might smoke tobacco; many of us (though not all) might consume moderate amounts of alcohol. And even caffeine—which I would daresay almost all of us consume in some form in the course of a typical day—can be classified as a drug, too, you know…
Do we want the call for a “drug free society” to mean that we can’t get our blood pressure medication at the pharmacy, or can’t have our martini before dinner or our cup of java in the morning?
I don’t think so.
No, we don’t want “good” drugs made illegal, just “bad” ones. But who is to choose which are “good” and which are “bad”?
Reason would indicate that “good” drugs would be legal, while “bad” drugs would be illegal, right?
It would seem to make sense to say that “Drugs that kill are bad.” But about 400,000 Americans die each year from smoking cigarettes—and they’re perfectly legal—and very big business. Alcoholism is a scourge that has killed people and destroyed families for generations—but, as we’ve seen—we’ve tried prohibition of alcohol, and it didn’t work.
Yet, we insist on a blanket prohibition against marijuana, which millions of Americans use illegally anyway. In the days following the September 11th attack, Attorney General Ashcroft took time away from dealing with this direct assault on America and the war on terrorism to reiterate the policy of the Bush administration opposing all efforts to legalize the medical use of marijuana. In the light of all the critical, dangerous issues facing our country, some thought it strange that the Attorney General would still be speaking out against doctors who want to prescribe marijuana for their patients suffering from cancer, glaucoma, or other diseases whose symptoms have been shown to be moderated by the use of cannabis.
In spite of the fact that millions of Americans use marijuana as a recreational drug of choice each year, there is no evidence that the actual smoking of marijuana per se has ever killed anyone. The same, obviously, cannot be said of tobacco or alcohol. Nor of prescribed medications, which cost the lives of tens of thousands of people each year when they are mis-prescribed or misused. Even over-the-counter pain-killers like Tylenol, Advil, and aspirin take the lives of an estimated 7,000 people last year. Compare this to the 16,000 deaths every year caused by the use of all illegal drugs (including hard drugs like heroin and cocaine). Then compare that number—16,000—to the 531,000 deaths every year (that’s 33 times as many) that can be ascribed to alcohol or tobacco.
Now, I am not advocating the use of illegal drugs, not at all. (I don’t even drink or smoke; now, if someone declares overly-salted snack treats a drug, then I’d be in trouble with the law—and in all honesty, the bad diets some of us have, beyond a doubt, killed many more people each year than the recreational use of marijuana does). And I think it’s completely right and proper that we should educate our children and young people about the dangers of drug abuse and abusing their bodies, and do all that we can to stop the sale of drugs to those who are not adults—as we do with alcohol and tobacco (though the results here, I’m afraid, have not been terribly encouraging lately). But the fact of the matter is that with present drug policy, it’s harder for (say) a sixteen year old to get a six-pack of beer than it is for him (or her) to buy a nickel bag of pot. That’s because by criminalizing marijuana, we’ve forced it underground, and have made it that much more difficult to regulate—and that much more profitable to peddle.
Obviously, I am not advocating the use of drugs. Nor am I saying that drug abuse is something that should simply be ignored. But I don’t think the problem of drug abuse is anywhere near the problem that the hysteria engendered by the “War on Drugs” would have us believe. I’m also saying that I don’t think drug abuse is always synonymous with drug use, and that a society which calls itself free should tread very lightly in telling adults which physical pleasures they may enjoy, and which they may not. People should have the right to choose for themselves—and the responsibility to face the consequences of their choices. Period. I admit that I’m very much a libertarian on this particular issue.
The real issue that demands our attention—all of us, as a society—is not whether our neighbors are smoking a little weed, but rather, the tremendous damage being done by our government’s “War on Drugs”. The so-called “cure” has become much worse than the disease. The “war” is ruining more lives and killing more people than the evil it has set about to eradicate. As one of my colleagues has written: “The truth is that the war on drugs in this country is tangled up with some of the most daunting dimensions of our national life together. These include racism, military policy, prison overcrowding, the inequalities of the legal system, poverty, and the conflicts between private morality and public laws. Its complexity is not a reason to avoid it, but a reason to tread carefully and thoughtfully as we explore.”
The racial (and racist) dimensions of the “War on Drugs” are well documented:
No wonder that many believe that the so-called “War on Drugs” is, in truth, a war aimed almost exclusively against black people.
Writing in the Christian Century in 1999, Walter Wink, a Quaker observer, wrote:
“Our attempts to stamp out drugs by force violate a fundamental spiritual principle: …When we oppose evil with the same weapons that evil employs, we invariably find ourselves committing the same atrocities, violating the same civil liberties, bending and breaking the same laws, as those whom we oppose. In the process, we are becoming the very thing we hate.
“Armed resistance to the drug trade is doomed to fail precisely because the drug trade perfectly mirrors our own values… Americans are, variously, addicted to many things, among them wealth, sex, food, work, alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco. By attacking addiction in others, we can feel good about ourselves without coming to any insight about our own addictions… The enemy is us. Unable to face that fact, we launch a half-hearted, ill-conceived war against a menace that only mirrors what we have become as a nation.
“It is hight time we addressed the problem of illicit drugs not as a war to be won, but as an epidemic to be checked, a disease to be curbed, and an opportunity to see ourselves in the faces and mutilated veins of our addicted brothers and sisters.”
The “war on drugs” can’t just be another confrontation of the “haves” against the “have nots”, of the powerful against the powerless. It’s only when we see all of us as brothers and sisters in the building of a new society—all of us as victims of the scourge of illicit drugs—all of us as victims of this misguided fanatical “war” in which our government has been involved for the past 30 years—that we will be able to struggle toward some kind of reasonable consensus on this very complicated issue. A person I really respect, who has worked in this field for years, told me recently that the longer he has worked in the field of drug abuse, the more he has discovered he doesn’t know. From that kind of wisdom—knowing what we don’t know and seeking eagerly after the best answers available—solutions to our society’s problems can arise.
Were that our present leaders were so wise. It’s not that there haven’t been glimpses of wisdom and sanity:
Way back in 1978, President Jimmy Carter (always an oasis if sanity and common sense in the intellectually arid desert which is our government) proposed to Congress that adult Americans be allowed to grow and buy and consume cannabis (marijuana) in appropriate settings. His proposal was summarily ignored by a Congress controlled by his own party.
When President Clinton’s Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders suggested that we study alternatives to the war on drugs, including legalization and decriminalization of certain drugs, she was attacked from all sides—including by her own boss (a man never known for his loyalty) and her political days were numbered.
Conservative columnist William F. Buckley Jr. says the time has come to end the “War on Drugs”. Liberal columnist Anthony Lewis says pretty much the same thing a short while later. An increasing number of judges, law enforcement officials, social workers, scholars, ordinary men and women join the chorus for change.
In his book, Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It, Judge James P. Gray, a former federal prosecutor, writes:
Yet, our present President appoints as his drug czar, General John Walters, a right wing, anti-drug fanatic, who considers treatment of drug offenders “a myth” (in spite of a government-funded Rand Corporation report saying that treatment is, in effect, the only effective means of combating drug abuse—more than ten times more effective than incarceration, and more than four times cheaper). Walters also opposes any medical use of marijuana and the rights of states to permit it, refuses to reconsider minimum sentencing laws, and wants to expand our funding to the tyrannical regime in Colombia (which now receives more US foreign aid than any country except Israel and Egypt). How much of those billions of dollars—18 billion each year—is being used by the regime of Colombia (the regime with the worst human rights record in the Western Hemisphere) to enrich itself, decimate its opposition, and buy off the drug cartels? One shudders to think of the Bin Ladens we are still creating in Latin America!
When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?
One of the classic definitions of “addiction” is to persist in dangerous or destructive behavior, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The philosopher George Santayana once said that “Fanaticism consists in redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.” That could be a description of our government’s war on drugs. It’s time to turn back—it’s time change—before it’s too late.
The lunacy of the “War on Drugs” must cease. As Judge Gray has said, “The time is now.”