Thursday, July 05, 2007

We Lost the War a Long Time Ago

I began my nine-year, seven-college odyssey at Humboldt State, Arcata, California, in September, 1960. Thanks to my fellow freshmen, it was the first year Humboldt State enrollment passed 2,000.

As modest as it was, Humboldt State seemed very large to me. I had just graduated from Point Arena High, enrollment 140, and my graduation class totaled twenty seven, both numbers the highest in school history.

I was on a record setting roll.

Inexplicably I was selected for Honors English, which combined required Freshman English and Speech into a two-semester course taught by two professors.

My first combined paper and speech was inspired by news about Mafia involvement in illegal drug trafficking. My research soon convinced me that our efforts to stomp out illegal drugs were doomed to failure.

In today’s parlance, it was a no-brainer.

Illegal drug profits were huge, and were employed to pay off police, judges, politicians, and anyone else who might have involvement in illegal drug trade prevention. Those that could not be bought could be intimidated or killed.

Even in those more innocent, simpler years, the cost of illegal drugs to society was huge and growing. Our legal system was being corrupted, addicts constantly committed crimes to feed their addictions, productive lives and families were shattered, and social services and medical care for addicts were overwhelmed.

The illegal drug trade made crime international. Large areas of foreign countries became lawless and ungovernable. Poppy farms flourished in Turkey and Afghanistan to fill the demand for opium. Italian and French Mediterranean cities became hubs for processing raw opium into heroin and shipping it to the United States. Some years later, when cocaine became the drug of choice, coca cultivation became and remains the dominant economic and political force in Columbia and Bolivia.

American public pressures led President Nixon to declare a War on Drugs in 1971.

The War on Drugs is a prohibition campaign undertaken by the United States with the assistance of participating countries, intended to "combat" the illegal drug trade - to curb supply and diminish demand for certain psychoactive substances deemed harmful. This initiative includes a set of laws and policies that are intended to discourage the production, distribution, and consumption of targeted substances.

Of course, the illegal drug trade has built-in dynamics that guarantee any war against it will be a losing effort.

First, the demand for illegal drugs remains high, because the very fact that their possession and use is illegal discourages their users from trying to get help to end their addictions.

Second, the fact they are illegal makes them costly to produce and distribute, and drives their users to commit crimes and traffic in drugs to be able to afford the expensive drugs for their own use.

Third, high prices generate huge profits and assure a steady supply of persons eager to work with, compete with, or replace existing drug dealers.

Fourth, on the supply side the opium poppies and coca leaves are grown by farmers in areas where it is very difficult to compete against modern farming methods and subsist on legal crops.

When I did my research in 1960, and now 47 years later, the efforts to prevent or discourage drug abuse haven’t changed. They continue to be the “in-the-box” approaches that didn’t work then, and don’t work now.

You could say they are evidence of insanity in our approach to drug abuse prevention – doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different outcome each time.

What could – should – we have done to win the war on drug abuse?

Amazingly, I had the answer to that question 47 years ago when I was only a couple of months past my 18th birthday.

I didn’t come up with the solution all by myself.

I had a little help from the Dutch.

Simply, all that needs to be done is take the profits out of drug use and abuse. On the demand side, you give free drugs to addicts in a supervised environment, and instead of jail time, you provide them medical, educational, counseling, and job training services. The key is to identify and treat their addiction through primarily medical means, with no judicial or penal component.

On the supply side, you purchase all the opium and coca leaves that farmers produce at fair market prices, which should be reasonably low since the free issue of drugs to addicts has taken the profits out of illicit drug trafficking.

The resulting savings from de-criminalizing drug addiction, and the reduction of crime when addicts are given free drugs, would be far more than needed to pay for clinics to provide and maintain services to addicts.

The best way to win a war is to identify why you are fighting before you start shooting.

In the case of drug abuse, we want to prevent and cure addiction, not to create and sustain a criminal growth industry.

So far we’ve done just the opposite.

No comments: