The War on Drugs

Dear Mr. Gray:

       It seems that your idea of minutia is my idea of a fact. And the fact of a high incidence of drug addiction in 1900 is a very important matter indeed. Yet I understand why you won’t acknowledge it. It would require you to abandon your cherished premise that early prohibition had no effect on the consumption of drugs themselves.
       Fact: The rate of addiction in 1900, when there were few anti-drug laws, was at least between 3 and 4 people out of every 1,000 (you say this yourself). Yes, the rate declined by about a half to two-thirds by 1920. Yes, the federal Harrison Act was passed in 1914 when the decline was already underway. But the act itself was a culmination of state and local ordinances, which, themselves, did a pretty good job of reducing use. Why were those ordinances put into effect in the first place? Because drugs were ruining lives.
       It is simple: Highly addictive drugs are bad for people. When Americans figured this out at the turn of the last century, they passed laws to protect citizens from the risk of addiction. You and I can argue fairly about whether current society protects people from that risk in the most effective, economically sound, and humane ways, but it is absurd to denigrate the fundamental stimulus of prohibition: the innate harmfulness of substances such as heroin and cocaine.
       It is absurd to hold me responsible for the horror stories in your book. But OK, I’ll play.

  • For each Colombian official “machine gunned in front of his family” that you claim I caused, I’ll hold you accountable for every stillborn crack baby.
  • For the young black man you say I put in jail, you’re responsible for the drug-induced death of Len Bias.
  • If I allegedly discovered crack, then you are to blame for the Wall Street tycoon who bankrupted his family to pay for it and then committed suicide. So there.

       Pretty offensive and childish, huh?
       That said, let’s consider this. Say we stopped interdiction efforts tomorrow and legalized drugs the next day. In that scenario, the excesses of the “drug war” would no longer compete for your attention with the innate hazards of heroin and cocaine (and methamphetamine and PCP, etc.). We’d see the raw effects of the chemicals themselves. And we’d see the number of addicts climb. Isn’t that pretty much your plan? Let people use. Demand no accountability. Allow the casualties to decide when they are ready to get help, and ask the taxpayer to pay their way until they decide to reform (if they decide). And, since you think that drug use is a human right and addiction a medical disease, you counsel society NOT to get fed up when these folks neglect their duties as parents, workers, and fellow citizens.
       Now, if this were a libertarian world, where people had to endure the consequences of destructive behavior, we could talk about liberalizing drug policy. I’d be willing to have that conversation, because I suspect that a libertarian regime would actually be more systematically vigilant against drugs than we are now. With no Americans With Disabilities Act, no publicly supported treatment facilities, and no social safety net, the consequences of drug “misuse” would be certain and sometimes severe, as it was earlier in the century. In addition, drug testing by property owners–of the highway you drive on, the apartment you rent, the factory that hires you –would be widespread and routine … and perfectly legal.
       This might be an excellent program for relapse prevention. It wouldn’t be a world I necessarily welcome, but it’s an interesting one to contemplate. At the very least it has elements that encourage personal responsibility by the user. The scenario you paint, on the other hand–drugs for everyone and public support for those who fall apart–pushes the responsibility onto the rest of us. Can some people use drugs without peril? Yes. But I’m not talking about the person who smokes a joint while watching Fantasia. That’s not whom prohibition is for. It’s for all teen-agers and for the adults who can’t handle intoxicants. As a psychiatrist, I see these people every day and help them put their lives back together. (And, by the way, they think legalization is a terrible idea. I asked.)
       As I said in my book review, drugs today are cheap, plentiful, and relatively pure. That’s a sign that interdiction at the borders and overseas is not working all that well. And, frankly, I don’t know whether it can be conducted more efficiently or if it is an essentially impossible task. There’s no question, however, that the goal of supply reduction–lowering the cost and availability of drugs–can influence whether addicts stop using or cut down. So it is not without logic, as you insist. But my focus is on the users of drugs and on the one thing in this world that a sane individual can control: his own actions.

Sally Satel