by Bruce Hanify Here is the short answer to the War on Drugs: there is no short answer. Whichever side you fall on this issue, you will be blinded by prejudice. Why? Because if you supply a yes or no answer, you will likely neglect one of two necessary principles at play in how law and government work. Which one you’re blind to tells me whether you’re for or against the legalization of recreational drugs.
Before we get started, let me confess that I have been personally and professionally involved in the entire imbroglio of illicit drug use for what now seems like my entire life. I prosecuted drug cases for 15 years, and defended them for 10. What follows is an honest account of the battle thus far, as I understand it.
Here are the two principles:
First, government is force. It is sheer lunacy to expect government to work like a fine instrument in, say, the hands of a Leonardo. Government, ultimately, is about taking your money and throwing you into jail — or worse. And the big mystery about government isn’t really such a mystery. When and where and how people want government to use force is an outgrowth of cultural dynamics that are sometimes difficult to spot up close. It usually takes at least a century of separation before people can honestly assess what was going on in some specific period. And then there are those notable exceptions, like the “War Between the States” and the Fall of Rome, where no two historians have ever agreed on much of anything. The War on Drugs is equally perplexing. Whenever these things are researched in detail, they fail to yield easy answers.
Government does not solve problems creatively. Never has, never will. What government does is wipe out the competition. Government is not a nanny or an art teacher or your Aunt Rose. It is the biggest, dullest boy on the block, and when you get in the way, it whomps you. The questions addressed by the American constitution are never the legitimacy of force, but when, where and how force ought to be applied — and to what end. Creativity can only occur when absolute freedom of choice is allowed to operate. In the case of politics and law, creativity is more an adolescent indulgence than an event we can all look forward to. Hence, the first principle forces us to conclude that no matter which course of action we choose, it won’t be pretty.
The second principle people are likely to miss derives from the Equal Protection clause, found in the 14th Amendment — a major Civil War era modification to the constitution:
.… No State shall .… . deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Put simply, you cannot equally enforce laws unless there is a general social agreement about what it is you’re trying to do. If you doubt how critical this is, compare a mostly homogenous population like Japan’s to our heterogeneous nation. A Japanese pretty much understands where he or she is, what’s going on, and what’s expected of him, whether he’s at a wedding, or in a courtroom. We don’t have much of that in the United States. The first big question on the table is, then:
You can see the problem immediately. If you passed a drug law in Japan, chances are most Japanese would understand what the law intended. Here it is not so clear. What a drug is to a Christian Scientist is not the same thing as a drug to your physician, and so on. It is extremely unlikely that we will ever have much agreement as to the federal government’s proper role in the regulation of drugs because few of us could agree on what what is being regulated: meth, or aspirin? Even my subtitle, “the 45-Year-Old War on Drugs”, is meaningless. Younger readers would think the War on Drugs began with Reagan’s coronation of it as such, but for old folks like myself it started in ’67, after Art Linkletter’s daughter fell (?) out a window and died; and for the Reefer Dudes it started in the 20s; and for the purist Libertarian types, it started with the .… .
The Food and Drug Act, passed in 1906. That generation of people had witnessed one of the largest populations of opium addicts ever seen in this country. Between opium-laced consumer products and wounded Civil War veterans, the United States experienced a widespread, chronic problem with serious drug addiction. You could argue — many do — that nothing needed to be done, but if you put yourself in that time and think about people making money selling dope-laden consumer products to pregnant women, you can understand why it seemed advisable for the federal government to step in, i.e., poisonous foods and poisonous drugs are in the same category, socially speaking. Aren’t they?
Consider: do you want to repeal the Food and Drug laws? The first time someone’s baby dies from bad formula, we’re right back where we started.
The complexities multiply exponentially. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that relaxing the federal government’s current reach and financial take might rejuvenate many torpid areas of our country. When you look at the enormity of power and the financial drain represented by the federal government, you can say, “They should get out of drugs.” But then someone’s baby dies, and everyone says, ‘Why doesn’t someone stop them?’ That’s the reality of having a huge country, a heterogeneous population, and a distant, abstract, often dismally stupid national government. There is never going to be one easy answer because the answer will change with the question. You can take that same observation and apply it to any of the other thousands of things our federal government is doing. There will always be folks standing in line saying, “Look at these good things”, and then folks in the other line, saying, “Tsk, tsk, such a waste!”
So let’s start from the outside and work our way back. Let us argue, as many do, that “treatment is the right answer.” Okay. I agree. Treatment is a better answer than punishment. Now let’s look at three factors which complicate that picture entirely:
1) Presuming we are going to mandate treatment, which will require taxation and governmental regulation, we are still fighting a War on Drugs. We may be fighting more like a Peace Corps engagement than a U.S. Army Search and Destroy mission, but we’re still in a War. People will have to be arrested. Force will be necessary. Do you doubt this? How would you expect to enforce laws that are sweetly written but don’t carry the force of law? What you’re really doing is shifting the use of force, so let’s be honest about that.
2) The assumption is that once we move the emphasis from punishment to treatment the drug cartels will disappear and the cost of the War will drop. Where is the proof for this? The fact is, you will still need to expend a great amount of money to treat addiction on a national scale, and you will still have competition. In other words, there is no legitimate reason to expect that things will suddenly improve. Probably we would have to expend even greater effort than before because now you are arguing against something you have given tacit approval to. Maybe not. I’m just throwing that out there.
3) The other assumption is, once you legalize drugs, market prices will drop, but I ask again: where is the proof of this? Perhaps the only way to do that is to get rid of the competition altogether and give people their drugs, but .… given the general inefficiencies of government (and government’s well-documented resistance to anything like facts), you know as well as I do they’d screw that up so badly, we’d probably spend three times what we’re spending now. Besides, this option works best when you have the option of wiping out the competition. Back to where we started.
So .… what is the answer? I believe I started this post by saying “There is no one answer.” And I stand by that, with this proviso: treating addicts like they’re monsters is not a good idea. Addiction, like financial chaos, like obesity, like mental illness, is a weakness many people suffer from that is rooted in brain chemistry, developmental dynamics, social pressures, and so on. The answer — if we’re forced to resort to force — lies somewhere in providing suitable training structures and medical treatments that address mental illness and dietary challenges. Pulverizing a person’s self-image to make a point is likely to reinforce the negative behavior, in my view, which is the real moral difficulty with our War on Drugs.
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Two Thoughts About Prohibition Almost always people resort to the tired and incongruent analogy of Prohibition: “We tried it during Prohibition and it didn’t work. Ha Ha Ha!” Well, here are two thoughts about Prohibition you might want to consider:
#1 Socially, Prohibition was feminism’s first major electoral victory after obtaining the right to vote. Women rebelled against drunken, abusive men. Guess what? It served them (the men) right. Since they couldn’t control themselves, they shouldn’t whine about somebody knockin’ ‘em around. By the way, this has a direct bearing on whether or how a free people can regulate themselves. The fact is, drunkenness and drug abuse are inconsistent with freedom. Most people resent being reminded of that. Easier to bray.
#2 The very idea that you can ban alcohol is, on its face, absurd. Prohibition was easily one of the most ill-conceived legal maneuvers in the history of man .… and it has a direct bearing on how we should treat addicts: punish them, or help them?
In related news, something that I would like to see more of: Genuine discussion of how certain drugs, like psychedelics, ACTUALLY HELP PEOPLE. Victoria Harris provides a reasonably interesting primer on how changing social views affect how we treat questions of what ought to be legal, but comments like THIS ONE are better than the article. MDMA and various other substances actually do promote psychological insight. Blanket prohibitions against certain drugs aren’t scientific. They’re hysterical and impractical and .… cruel.
Some people are calling Obama’s stance on drugs Disingenuous. Wow. Where have I heard that before?
Childhood chum Martin Shaughnessy wrote: “Actually, there is a short answer. All drugs should be legal, high quality, priced to market conditions, and readily available. What happens when you give a junkie all the dope they want? Problem Solved. Damn, you think too much, Bruce.”
UPDATE While I am grateful for Martin’s feedback, he makes my point for me. The position, “legalize drugs”, produces the same result as “abolish the FDA.” Sounds great over Sunday fried chicken, but I’ll guarantee you will NEVER win a national election on it. Everyone’s liberal about drug use till they think about taking their grand kids to Target and having to dodge stoners. Or, like I tell my Libertarian friends, “Two weeks after drugs are legalized, there’ll be a bounty on you guys. Twenty bucks a scalp.” No one seems to think political and social realities are relevant to the discussion — which was the point of my post.
Rob DeWitt wrote: “You rightfully employ the image of a national opium problem in the early 20th century. Imagine if there had been television and movies everywhere in 1900, subtly explaining to everybody who passed by that seeing a problem with opium addiction and the casual use of opium and cocaine in patent medicine was just an indication that you were an uptight asshole who’d never get laid. There would not only not have been a greatest generation, there would likely not have been their fathers fighting WWI, either.”
Hard-hitting stuff. And way beyond what Deniers are able to grasp, I know.
Also, this, at Vanderleun’s:
mjazz: If meth was legal, the “tweaker next door” wouldn’t care if Mr. Hanify was spying on him. It would be like the lady next door shooting you for watching her grow tomatoes.
That’s funny. And paranoid.
If you were rational, you’d realize I’m not taking a specific position. I’m talking about society, and human nature.
UPDATE: I was asked to give the Keynote speech last night at Mike Maki’s gala benefit dinner and silent auction Olympia Women’s Club, Abigail Stuart House. Mike and some friends were arrested in October for growing and distributing psilocybin mushrooms.
Mike and I are veterans of the West End of the Olympic Peninsula, circa 1970s. I was commenting that things were sure mellow back in those days. People who came to see the national parks in the summer used to always say, “You Pacific Northwest people sure are friendly!” Yes, we were. And then political operatives invaded, and started correcting thoughts and words. Hasn’t been the same since.
Of sinister historical note: the mania to correct people’s thoughts has not come from traditionally conservative institutions, like the Catholic Church, say. It has come from modern day “churchmen” who have all but destroyed the individualism that was inherent in my Pacific Northwest. It has all the features of a science fiction plot.
We see this negative pattern played out in discussions about topics like drugs. If you have an opinion that differs from the self-righteous, they crucify you.
What is that about?
All in all a very interesting evening. Martin Shaughnessy’s reply and the hysterics demonstrated by some comments at American Digest betray a complete inability to even consider that other people don’t agree with you. They regard people who are opposed to legalizing drugs as “uninformed.” Here’s a newsflash for you guys: Marijuana causes significant mental health impairment in many people. I can’t help but notice that my friends who still smoke are .… oh. Not current. The rest of us see it. We’re waiting for you to figure it out.
And why and how are you so anxious to see people die? Eh? Just a question.
Interested readers may enjoy my Prosecutor Series.
This interview of Jerry Garcia is probably the single best summation of the Sixties I have ever seen. Please note there was a very specific kind of moment in which there was clarity, but .… “It went away as soon as it was publicized.”
Interview of Jerry Garcia
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED BRUCE HANIFY 2012