The War on Drugs

Dear Sally,

       I’m afraid you can’t get by with blaming me for the consequences of your policies. Crack babies didn’t happen on my watch. I had nothing to do with it. That disaster was a direct result of drug prohibition, which created the market for a cheap high. Crack and crack babies inevitably followed, so you’re going to have to answer for that one as well. And as for Len Bias, his tragic death can also be laid at the feet of prohibition. When he overdosed on cocaine, there was still time to call the paramedics, who could have saved him, but his roommates were too frightened of the consequences.
       I’m not trying to lay the blame for all this grief on your shoulders, Sally, I’m just trying to get you to deal with the fact that the policy you support has spectacular negative consequences. If you’re going to defend that policy, you’ve got to justify, among other things, the fact that a young black man is five times more likely to do time for a given drug offense than a white kid–something that’s clearly going to have a terrible downstream cost. What are we getting in return?
       We agree on one thing, however. You make the point that highly addictive drugs are bad for people, and you’ll get no argument there. My father struggled with alcoholism all his life–a habit he picked up during alcohol prohibition, by the way–but I can’t imagine that his life would have been improved in the slightest by throwing him in jail.
       That paragraph about the libertarian future was over my head, but I must say I was blown away by your picture of me as the Svengali of addiction, this heartless writer promoting drug use for the sheer joy of seeing the numbers increase: “Isn’t that pretty much your plan?” you ask. “Let people use. Demand no accountability.” Well, actually, no, I have a whole different plan. It’s designed to keep drugs out of the hands of children, and instead of basing it on wishful thinking, it’s based on science and history.
       Back in the 1920s, before the government shut them down, there were several drug maintenance clinics in the United States that gave serious addicts their drugs of choice, and they were tremendously successful in reducing crime, improving the health of the addicts, and ultimately in getting people to kick. Three years ago I saw the same thing at a clinic in Liverpool, England, where they were distributing weekly drug prescriptions to some 450 addicts. Their doses had been stabilized, and they were able to function as normal human beings. They had jobs and homes and families, and when they walked out the door they were indistinguishable from any other AIDS-free citizens of Liverpool. What’s more, about 5 percent of these people were permanently giving up the habit every year, and that’s a better track record than a lot of forced treatment programs.
       But the real attraction here was not that humane medical treatment made life easier for these addicts but that the clinic made life easier for everybody else in the neighborhood. According to the local police, once the serious addicts were off the street, the crime rate dropped dramatically and the street market vanished. With no street market, children had no access to dealers, and the incidence of drug use among young people declined.
       That’s my plan, Sally.

Mike Gray