The War on Drugs

Dear Sally,

       In your recent Wall Street Journal critique of my book Drug Crazy, your argument opens with the mistaken premise that our anti-drug laws were based on logic–that they were enacted in response to “a great wave of addiction in the U.S.” at the turn of the century. It’s not surprising you’re misinformed on this point since that is the conventional wisdom, but it turns out not to be the case. If you would consult your Yale colleague David Musto, one of the leading historians of that era, you will discover, as I did, that the national scourge of addiction is a totally self-inflicted wound.
       In 1900, there was no significant drug problem in the United States. The typical addict was a middle-age Southern white woman strung out on an opium-alcohol mix called laudanum, and the total number of addicts was probably less than a few tenths of 1 percent of the population. Says Musto, “there was a peak in addiction around 1900, and in the teens of this century this number began to decrease and reached a relatively small number (about 100,000) in the 1920s.”
       In truth, both drugs and alcohol were in public disfavor at the turn of the century, because the temperance movement had been so successful. But once moral suasion was replaced with police power, we were rewarded with an instant black market, the birth of organized crime, rampant corruption, and violence on a scale unimagined.
       After a decade of this, people got fed up with the gunplay, and alcohol prohibition sank of its own weight in 1933. Drug prohibition should have ended at the same time for the same reason, but there simply weren’t enough drug users to form a political constituency. Instead, they became convenient scapegoats for any passing office seeker who needed to prove he was tough on crime. Addicts will continue to serve this function until we, too, tire of the gunplay, the spread of organized crime, the mushrooming prison population, the rampant corruption, and the steady erosion of the Constitution.
       Your second mistake is the assumption–totally unsupported by science or history–that giving serious addicts their drug of choice is simply giving them “the means of their own destruction.” Drug Crazy is loaded with evidence to the contrary. I’d recommend that you re-read it, but in the interest of efficiency let me remind you of the recent Swiss heroin maintenance experiment. In January of 1994, the Swiss government authorized a three year research program involving 1,000 addicts who were given prescription heroin under the watchful eye of the Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences and the World Health Organization. The volunteers had to be daily users with a long history, and they had to have proof of at least two serious attempts to kick.
       When the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health issued the final report in July 1997, they found that crime among the addict population had dropped by 60 percent, half the unemployed found jobs, a third of those on welfare became self-supporting, nobody was homeless, and the general health of the group improved dramatically. By the end of the experiment, 83 patients had decided on their own to give up heroin in favor of abstinence.
       If that ain’t what we’re after, Sally, what the hell are we after?