Monday, April 21, 2008

The Worst of All Possible Worlds

Today's exercise: design a policy which produces the following results:

1. fills a veritable gulag of prisons with a half a million nonviolent men and women
2. feeds a global Mafia of unprecedented size, wealth and influence
3. nurtures a ghetto culture of endless turf wars, murder and mayhem
4. despite spending hundreds of billions of dollars, the policy utterly fails to meet its "official" goal of limiting the supply of certain commodities

Congratulations, you've just designed the U.S. "War on Drugs." The failures of this "war" are so monumental that they beggar description. Not only are illegal drugs still readily available, the "war" has spawned a global Mafia which reaps billions of dollars in profits, enabling it to extend its reach into other businesses.

Here at home, inner cities are riven by endless drug-centric turf wars and murders. Pushers are the "big men" in the ghetto, the ones young men and women respect and hope to emulate. In an attempt to render the consequences of dealing drugs so horrendous that people would forsake the immense wealth and prestige to be gained, the penalties for drug dealing and possession have been ramped up to insane "minimum sentences" which exceed those for rape and manslaughter.

How doomed-to-fail is this "war"? Let's start with geography. Take a nation with thousands of miles of unguardable coastline and borders, then toss in the fact that small, low-flying aircraft ensure its airspace is porous as well. Now guarantee an immense cash reward to anyone who successfully penetrates these thousands of miles of coast and border with a small shipment of drugs.

Gee, do you think somebody will try, and succeed?

Let's move onto lethality. Have you seen those headlines about 15,000 traffic deaths caused by drivers smoking marijuana? Strangely enough, there are no such headlines, even though millions of people routinely use marijuana.

The 15,000 people killed every year by drug-addled drivers are killed by alcohol-addled drivers, not marijuana-addled drivers. Yet nobody seems to make this simple observation. Every decade, 150,000 Americans are senselessly, needlessly murdered by alcoholic-impaired drivers. Hundreds of thousands more are injured.

And marijuana is so dangerous that we have to imprison you for years if you deal it?

Next, let's ask: if cocaine and heroin were legalized tomorrow, would you run right out and become a junkie? It's really not that appealing, is it, and so what are we so frightened of? Research suggests that a small percentage of any human population has a genetic propensity for addiction; these people seem to find a way to become addicted to alcohol, prescription medication or an illegal drug regardless of the restraints, and perhaps they would be better served by a policy of legalized drugs prescribed by doctors, out in the open, where they could be encouraged to seek treatment.

Contrary to movieland depictions of certain overdose and death, many junkies (heroin addicts) function in "day jobs" much like many prescription drug addicts. From a public health point of view stripped of ideological panic and fear, the legal drugs (alcohol, nicotine, and dozens of powerful prescription drugs) kill, maim and cripple more people than do illegal drugs--so what exactly is the criteria for distinguishing legal from illegal if harm, addictiveness and secondary effects such as 15,000 deaths due to alcohol-impaired drivers are not counted?

A more rational policy would be:

1. the U.S. government would buy the entire poppy crop in Afghanistan and the Golden Triangle, and the entire coca crop of South America by outbidding the current buyers. This makes perfect economic sense; why spend $100 billion on a worthless "war on drugs" when $100 million would buy the entire global crop of heroin poppies and coca leaves?
2. all drugs would be legalized and the price dropped to a few dollars per month for all current addicts who registered and obtained their "prescription" from a doctor or clinic. Marijuana would be equivalent to tobacco, controlled for quality and limited to those 21 years of age and older. It would be taxed and sold by the same retailers who sell cigarettes and alcohol now.
3. with the cost for heroin, cocaine and marijuana dropped to a few dollars, the illegal drug trade and its panoply of crime, murder and other ills would vanish overnight. The crimes associated with controlling turf and dealers would vanish too, along with the countless property crimes committed by addicts seeking money for their fix.
4. "Big Pharma" and the tobacco companies would be invited to enter the marijuana trade, ensuring quality and heavy lobbying to keep the product "safe and available to responsible consumers."
5. all the Mexican drug cartels' secret fields of marijuana in national forests would be rendered worthless as commercial growers were licensed.
6. with addicts to all drugs registered and coming to clinics for their supplies, the possibility of weaning them from addiction would increase.
7. law enforcement could stop wasting money and staff on the senseless, worthless, grossly ineffective "war on drugs" and focus on violent criminals.
8. a drug-crimes amnesty would clear nonviolent drug users and petty dealers out of prison, enabling major cost savings which could be applied to teaching the released prisoners some useful skills.
9. the "cool factor" in illegal drugs would vanish, as the appealing "forbidden" aspect of drugs would quickly fade. Once anyone can get drugs at a clinic, it's just not cool.
10. Crystal meth addicts could be switched over to "safer" marijuana or cocaine.

I know some of this will be a stretch to those of you who have absorbed decades of propaganda about how awful and horrible illegal drugs are, while hundreds of thousands of innocents have been killed by drunk drivers with nary a whisper of official recognition of the dangers of alcohol. And let's not forget the millions killed by incredibly addictive, fully legal cigarettes. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to those around him, a heroin junkie goes about his daily job, his supposedly horrific addiction bothering no one.

Yes, marijuana is harmful, and heroin and cocaine are dangerous drugs which can kill when abused. So are prescription "legal" drugs. Sadly, the hundreds of thousands of dead killed by drunk drivers and cigarettes attest to how "safe" and "harmless" these legal drugs are. And let's not forget the thousands who die in overdoses, planned and unplanned, of perfectly legal prescription drugs.

Setting aside the propaganda, on strictly public health and financial metrics, legalizing and controlling all drugs equally is the only rational policy. As the U.S. slides into recession/depression/financial cataclysm, perhaps the propaganda will give way to this one unavoidable reality: we can no longer afford the $100 billion prison complex/gulag and the failed "war on drugs," regardless of what fantasies/insanities have held sway for decades.
Addiction and drugs are not pretty, but better to have them in the open and low-cost; an immense burden of crime would disappear overnight. That alone has value almost beyond a price tag.

Disclosure: I don't partake of any drugs but wine and beer, which in modest quantities have long been considered either part of a meal or medicinal in nature. If abused, both become as deadly as any illegal drug.

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