No one wishes the War on drugs was a success more than me because, after 48 years, 1 trillion dollars, 2.1 million Americans in prison and our entire way of life dictated by the criminal justice system, my son, Tim, would still be alive and I wouldn’t have this jagged, burning hole in my heart.
Admit that what we are doing about drugs now is a complete failure. We can’t arrest our way out of our drug problem. We all know that arresting addicts and sending them to jail doesn’t fix AMERICA’S drug problem because we have 2.1 million AMERICANS in prison and the problem is worse than ever. If you can’t bring yourself to admit this, you should stop reading because you are committed to continuing a War on Drugs that never had any chance of succeeding.
We should have learned from Prohibition; when we tried to deal with a drug problem almost 100 years ago. In 1920, when we made alcohol a crime, we immediately got all of the same problems that are the result of criminalization; crime, violence, broken families, wealthy cartels, etc. Notice that I said these problems were the result of criminalization not the result of alcohol. The proof of that statement is in the history books. In 1933, we removed the criminal penalties from alcohol and those nasty, unintended consequences disappeared almost as fast as they appeared. It doesn’t matter what substance you criminalize; the result is always the same. If there is a demand for the substance, a black market will quickly develop, and the unintended consequences are always the same; crime, violence, broken families, wealthy cartels, etc. Criminalization cannot work because it is trying to overcome the Law of Supply and Demand. Do you know why they call it a law? Because it works the same way every time. Like the law of gravity. It is foolish to try to fight it.
Criminalization does nothing to help with addiction. We cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem. All of the “treatment” programs will fail while criminalization continues. All treatment program, 12-step, behavioral modification, imprisonment, you name it, have one thing in common. None of them can ever be successful unless the addict has hope. When an addict is arrested on a drug charge, he will have that arrest on his record for the rest of his life. From then on, whenever he applies for a job, there will be a question on the application, “Have you ever been arrested for a drug crime? You don’t even have to be convicted to have any hope of a decent job snuffed out forever. I’ve heard some well-meaning police officials on the radio talking about how important it is to get addicts into treatment if we are ever going to get a handle on this problem. Then they say, “But we gotta catch them first”. When you catch them, you automatically destroy any incentive for the addict to put any effort into their treatment program.
I’m not faulting the police in any way. Our society turned the drug problem over to the police to fix and they have tried diligently for over forty years. But, policing fails to make any difference for the same reason that treatment fails. If the addict gets caught by the police, all hope is lost. This is why America, land of the free, has more of its citizens in prison than any other country in the world. We’re number one! America has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prisoners. We need to stop what we’re doing or take the “Land of the Free” out of the National Anthem.
The last 40 years of the War on Drugs has shown us that trying to restrict the supply of drugs is impossible and has the unintended consequence of making the drugs more valuable which makes everything even worse. We’ve spent a trillion dollars and put millions of Americans in prison without making a dent in America’s drug problem. The current system has succeeded in making some cartels extremely wealthy while destroying the lives of addicts and their families. We couldn’t do any worse.
There are people who, with the best of intentions, keep coming up with tweaks that they think will improve the effectiveness of the War on Drugs. There are cities who have “Fix Rooms” where addicts can bring their illegal drugs and shoot up with medical personnel at hand to help should they overdose. This will probably stop some overdoses, but it does nothing to affect addiction and won’t make any difference to the effectiveness of the War on Drugs.
We don’t need tweaks.
The time for tweaks is over. It’s time to try something completely different. I am NOT suggesting we throw up our hands and surrender but, if we removed all criminal penalties related to drugs at midnight tonight. without any plan for working the problem in the future, we would be better off than we are today and 175 Americans would not die tomorrow!
We need to stop sending our money to drug dealers and wealthy cartels. There are a number of other ways to deal with a national drug problem. We won’t know which solution will be best for America until we try them and we can’t try them if we continue to hang on to the punishment model. The punishment model can’t be run side-by-side with any other program.
Take the criminal justice system completely out of the drug treatment business. Don’t get me wrong. Black market activities would still be a crime but the plan is to take all the profit out of illegal drugs. When the dealers won’t have any customers there’s no incentive to sell illegal drugs. The dealers will have to find some other way to feed their families and put a roof over their heads.
We should treat all drugs the same way we treat alcohol and nicotine. There will be some restrictions just as there are for alcohol and nicotine. The restrictions can be modified as needed but addiction is a medical problem and a public health problem. It’s only a criminal problem because we’ve made addiction a crime. We would greatly benefit by starting with the highly successful Portugal model DPA Fact Sheet Portugal Decriminalization February 2015.
But Bill, if drugs are that easy to get, we will have a huge increase in the number of addicts. This is a common belief but studies show otherwise, and I don’t know a single person who has been wanting to try heroin and is just waiting for it to become legal. Are you waiting for legalization so you can try heroin? Not me! Ask around. If you find someone who is just chomping at the bit to try heroin as soon as it’s legal, throw a net over them and call authorities because they are a danger to themselves (and probably others).
We need a massive and continuous campaign to let people, and especially children, know that addiction has a terrible punishment built-in that never goes away. Public Service Announcements (PSA) with addicts explaining how drugs took everything they ever had including money, family, friends and any hope for the future would be a good start.
We’ve spent a $ trillion over the last 40 years but very little of it was used to provide treatment. Addicts dying from an overdose while they were waiting for a bed to come open at a treatment center is a very common story. There is no place for the private sector in treatment programs.
Approximately 21 million Americans have a Substance Use Disorder (SUD). Of them, only one in ten receives any form of treatment. Even worse, for those who do receive treatment, it is often delivered without the use of evidence-based practice. Read about treatment that works here.
In one model, Addicts would register to get assigned a private number. This private registration number will never be used for any other purpose than to document the progress of treatment. Regular testing of blood or urine would be put in a database and linked to that private registration number.
Registered addicts would be able to go to local clinics for free methadone (if they are working on sobriety) or very reasonably priced, clean, measured doses of morphine or a similar opiate that can be controlled for purity. No one has to die of an overdose while they are working out how they will deal with their addiction. They would also be tested to determine that they are only using the drugs provided and not using a black market. We, the taxpayers, will save a huge amount of money that is being wasted on our failing punishment system. It would be a big mistake to jump on the opportunity to tax the opiates after they are legal just to generate some revenue. Making the opiates more expensive will undermine our effort to remove any incentive for the black market. Almost all of the unintended consequences of our current War on Drugs are the result of making the selling of illegal drugs profitable. Let’s not let greed keep us from totally removing the black market. We can totally eradicate the black market by removing its reason for being. Taking the profits out of the black market does not risk the lives of any policemen. Taking the profits from the black market doesn’t require the allocation of any additional funds from the taxpayers.
The private registration data would help us determine the value of various programs. Any (public or private) program to treat addicts would have to track the addict’s progress as verified by urine or blood testing and tie it to his private registration in the database. We would quickly stop funding any program without significant results and increase funding for successful programs.
Doesn’t this plan need more details? Yes, it does. There are examples of how to deal with addiction from all over the world. Portugal is a great example. Fifteen years ago, when we were doubling down on using the criminal justice system, Portugal completely removed criminal penalties for drugs. Portugal had 100,000 addicts at that time. Now they have 25,000. Has Portugal completely wiped out addiction? No. But, how awesome would it be if AMERICA had only 25% of the addicts we have today. And the whole time we were reducing the number of addicts, we would be free of the unintended consequences of the War on Drugs, crime, violence, broken families, babies born addicted, wealthy cartels, etc. that we all live with every day. Getting rid of those unintended circumstances leads to the vision.