On Legalizing Drugs

“Americans must confront the reality that we are the market,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said this past Thursday. “We Americans must own this problem.”[1]

Meeting with his Mexican counterpart, Tillerson acknowledged the role of American drug consumption in the proliferation of violent Mexican drug cartels. Citing the enormous demand for heroin, cocaine, and marijuana by Americans eager to get high, he argued that “drug trafficking had to be addressed as a ‘business model,” attacking cash flow, gun procurement, production and distribution.’”

Oh, please. You’d think that an administration that promised new approaches would make some tiny effort to think outside the prohibition box. But never once in Tillerson’s comments or those of his colleague Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly did a new idea appear. Never once did they hint at any effort to consider the success of other nations where various types of legalization and regulation have greatly reduced drug problems.

Take, for example, the success of states like Colorado now in its fifth year of marijuana legalization. Sales of the legal herb generated tax revenues exceeding $150 million between January and October 2016, $50 million of which the state is using to pump up its school systems.[2] Significant shares of this revenue stream will support improved drug treatment, drug education programs, and various projects targeting at-risk populations.[3] All these expenditures help increase education, job skills, and opportunity for persons who might otherwise fall victim to substance abuse.

Yes, Americans are the market. But instead of devoting resources to learning more about why Americans are uniquely prone to drug use and abuse, outdated policies continue to treat Americans as children to be scolded and punished. This attitude helps foster voters’ disgust with government.

Punishment has become increasingly more severe as subsequent generations of policymakers have embraced the government-as-nanny model. Any incremental step away from prohibition has come wrapped in controversy, implemented only in states where the voice of reason has a chance to be heard. Now with the Trump Administration and its appointment of Jeff Sessions as head of the Justice Department, we face the prospect of a full-bore return to the good old failed policies of the past.

Why is there no discussion of legalization and regulation? A modest approach might be similar to that of Portugal, who years ago legalized all drugs. “Weed, cocaine, heroin, you name it – Portugal decided to treat possession and use of small quantities of these drugs as a public health issue, not a criminal one.”[4]

While our nation’s drug warriors lament that such an approach would lead to higher use rates among the young and greater ease of availability would increase use rates, the fact in Portugal is that youth aren’t using more, adults are using slightly less, the rates of HIV and Hep C infection are down, and – hear this – hardly anyone dies of overdose.

Compare that to the alarming rise in U. S. deaths from opiates which more than tripled between 2010 and 2015.

Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the US, with 52,404 lethal drug overdoses in 2015. Opioid addiction is driving this epidemic, with 20,101 overdose deaths related to prescription pain relievers, and 12,990 overdose deaths related to heroin.[5]

It’s way past time to face reality: people are going to use drugs. As far back as we can peer into human history, people have consumed everything from beer to cannabis to opium to hallucinogens. These practices are part of who we are, part of our religions, part of our ability to think outside or within ourselves.

Legitimate questions await answers about why various types of drug use throughout the millennia have transformed into today’s raging torrent of human suffering, but we’re not devoting any resources to answer those questions. Have the pressures of our fast-paced modern age forced us to seek refuge in intoxication? Is our multicultural society at fault in erasing old customs and rites of passage that could help us confront our existential crisis? Have the conveniences of our technological age created too much leisure time? What is the impact of a pharmaceutical industry’s marketing campaign flooding us with ads suggesting that the solution to every human ill is a drug?

We simply don’t know.

We should have learned a hundred years ago that criminalizing a popular intoxicant only creates bigger problems. Those who championed alcohol prohibition wanted to stamp out drunkenness. The blissful concept assumed that if alcohol were made illegal and its producers and users criminalized, everyone would simply stop drinking.

New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach (right) watching agents pour liquor into the … New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (neg. no. LC-USZ62-123257)

Far from it. For their trouble in passing the Eighteenth Amendment, the “dry” crusaders found their cities overrun by heavily armed criminals fighting over territory. People flaunted the law, patronizing highly popular speakeasies where drinking served as joyous rebellion against overweening authority.[6] No matter how many barrels of liquor were spilled into public gutters, ever more enterprising moonshiners set up shop in hidden hollows.

It took just over fourteen years for prohibition fervor to sour. Amendment Twenty reversed it in 1933.

As Lincoln famously said in 1840:

“Prohibition… goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man’s appetite by legislation and makes a crime out of things that are not crimes… A prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded.”[8]

Sadly, it seems little of this lesson actually sank in. Prohibition policies continue to frame our national approach to substance use and abuse, siphoning money into hit squads of heavily armed urban police and burgeoning prisons instead of desperately needed research and treatment of addiction.

Reality is that prohibition does nothing to reduce the market for drugs, but it does create a thriving underworld where dealers make huge profits. Stamp out every drug producer/dealer in the nation and tomorrow another crop will rise to the surface. Among the poor, especially those in marginal economies of Mexico and other Latin American countries, the potential benefits far outweigh the risks. Our inner city youth’s only hope of achieving the American dream seems to lie in the profitable drug trade. It’s about supply and demand.

The economics of prohibition can’t be overstated. Trade in illegal drugs generates so much profit that gangs can afford all the expensive weapons they might ever want. The spiraling up of urban warfare now involves military gear and tactics among the police and armor-piercing bullets in automatic weapons carried by adolescent criminals. The payoff comes in fancy cars, jewelry, and a lifestyle not achievable by legal means. Tax free.

A war on drugs is, after all, a war on our people, with rising collateral damage to our cities, institutions, and most of all, innocent bystanders.

Ironically, prohibition policies fail utterly to accomplish the goal of eradicating drug use/abuse. A smattering of evidence from states with legalized marijuana shows that teen use has dropped, suggesting that by removing the ‘forbidden fruit’ aspect of the drug, rebellions teens may lose interest. Meanwhile on the black market, no ID is required for purchase, and studies have found that teenagers can obtain marijuana more easily than beer. [9]

We the people have to decide what we’re going to do about this, because our so-called ‘leaders’ won’t make the first move. We have to decide and then make our voices heard. Compare:

  • a militarized police force versus friendly neighborhood police to protect and serve.
  • urban warfare versus reclaimed neighborhoods and inner cities
  • illegal search and seizure and loss of property even you’re not convicted of a crime versus government butting out of private lives
  • an overwhelmed judicial system versus our Constitutionally-guaranteed due process
  • half of federal prisoners in jail for drugs and the fact that drug offenses comprise the most serious offense for 16% of state prisoners versus an enormous reduction of prison population
  • our ever-growing investment in prisons versus a renewed investment in schools, mental health care, and state-of-the-art addiction treatment centers.
  • taxpayers struggling under drug war costs versus a regulated, taxed drug industry ensuring purity, restricting sales to adults only, and producing substantial new revenue streams
  • American citizens treated as children by government deciding what they can do in their personal lives versus each person responsible for his/her welfare. Want to be homeless, die in a ditch? Go ahead. Ask for help, we’ll be there for you.
  • overdose of drugs like heroin often resulting from zero information about purity or strength versus a regulated market that includes labeling for purity and precautions about use.

There are no upsides to the drug war. By any tally, this approach has been an enormous policy fiasco partly responsible for the decline of inner cities and disrespect for government in general. Government has never bothered to assess the effectiveness of its policies. No one can cite data showing that getting tough on drug traders and users has reduced supply or demand.

Indeed, judging by the rhetoric of our newest batch of politicos and the news flowing to our ears and eyes on a daily basis, we can say with certainty that drug prohibition continues to be an abysmal failure.

~~~

[1] http://www.latimes.com/politics/washington/la-na-essential-washington-updates-tillerson-puts-onus-of-drug-trafficking-1495131274-htmlstory.html

[2] http://fortune.com/2016/12/13/colorado-billion-legal-marijuana-sales/

[3] https://leg.colorado.gov/sites/default/files/15-10_distribution_of_marijuana_tax_revenue_issue_brief_1.pdf

[4] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/06/05/why-hardly-anyone-dies-from-a-drug-overdose-in-portugal/

[5] http://www.asam.org/docs/default-source/advocacy/opioid-addiction-disease-facts-figures.pdf

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prohibition_in_the_United_States

[7] http://www.autofoundry.com/293/the-best-moonshine-cars-of-all-time/

[8] http://www.americanantiquarian.org/proceedings/44807229.pdf

[9] http://www.cbsnews.com/news/teens-pot-easier-to-buy-than-beer/

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The Confederate Flag: Just Another Step

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I doubt I’ll ‘wow’ anyone with my observations about the problems of ‘Other’ in America. It’s all been said in one way or another. But I think it’s worth pointing out that we still don’t get it.

The recent take-down of the Confederate flag is a good example.

In this eight-second attention span world, it’s not difficult to understand why so many people find justification for their prejudices. Unless we know history and have learned to reason, we have little chance to appreciate other people’s reality. Instead we see anything not of our ‘in group’ with fear and anger—an eight-second take.

Racism, for example. The longer version goes like this. Ripped from their native lands and cultures, indigenous African people sold into slavery had no previous experience in Western norms. And aside from the lash of a whip, precious little of those norms were imbued when they arrived on our shores. In the fields of the American South, they weren’t here to learn our ways but to labor as a slightly more capable worker than a mule. For two hundred years, they weren’t educated or otherwise enabled to gain knowledge of Western customs.

Then one hundred fifty years ago, they were turned loose. This would have been a good time to wrap these folks in our arms and invest significant resources in education, social services, and other methods of making them part of our world. But few considered them ‘equal’ whether or not they believed slavery to be wrong.

And how could we consider them equal?

They weren’t like us. They didn’t talk like us, didn’t look like us, and didn’t act like us. They were ignorant, uneducated, unsophisticated. They suffered all the disabilities of their isolated and abused status: a poor grip on our language, cobbled together speech patterns, behaviors and beliefs that reflected their African roots.

These characteristics justified a continuing discrimination that hasn’t yet ended. Ample examples exist today of blacks who exhibit tribal behavior in angry demonstrations or celebrations, whose speech holds little in common with ‘white’ speech, whose appearances are different from the white norm. Unequal and inadequate education, poll taxes, economic exploitation, Jim Crow, and direct attacks on any and all aspects of Black community perpetuate this vicious cycle.

Yes, there were and are exceptions. Blacks who matriculated through the institutions of white culture, who intermingled and socialized with whites, became—surprise—just as educated, intelligent, and sophisticated as many whites!

Substitute ‘Mexican’ or ‘Native American’ or ‘Italian’ for the word ‘Black’ and the truth of our cultural tendency to operate from a hard-wired position of prejudice speaks for itself. But unlike other immigrants to American shores, Blacks suffer an additional stigma. Because we knew Blacks had been enslaved, beaten and abused, their families broken apart, and their traditions denigrated, it didn’t take a lot of mental arithmetic for us to believe that freed Blacks would have it in for us.

If you’d been treated that way, wouldn’t you be mad as hell?

So as soon as Blacks could walk freely among us, fear took over. The Ku Klux Klan formed to save white women from black men, because just as surely as white slave owners had ‘improved’ the black race by rape and interbreeding, why wouldn’t we assume that black men would want to do the same? Blacks who talked back, organized with labor unions, had the nerve to walk about in white society were quietly lynched or burned out of their churches and homes. If not at the end of a whip as slave, at least the black could be kept in his ‘place’ through systematic terrorism.

In its most recent incarnation, the preferred instrument of our racial prejudice has been drug laws. Laws against opium (1914, 1935) had to do with controlling increasingly unpopular Chinese immigrants. (The railroads were built and the mines had become mechanized. No more Chinese needed.) Laws against marijuana (1937) had to do with controlling Blacks and Mexicans. (During the Great Depression, these two groups were seen as competition for scarce jobs, especially in the agricultural South and Midwest.)

anslinger copyAs stated before Congress by Henry Anslinger, godfather of our federal drug control agencies, banning marijuana was a matter of protecting white women. Coming in off a heady run busting moonshiners, Anslinger probably hadn’t failed to notice that the 1932 end of alcohol prohibition could easily spell the end of his job unless he came up with more substances to demonize.

In a perhaps-not-so-coincidental coincidence, drug prohibition laws expanded in direct proportion to the success of the civil rights movement. Arguably, hippies were the intended target of stricter drug policy, but like any unenforceable law, drug prohibition became an easy tool to use selectively against anyone that law enforcement wanted to target. After the Seventies when the counterculture had gone underground, drug policy became a useful weapon against blacks, resulting in arrest and incarceration rates for blacks that far exceeded white rates. (This in spite of the fact that multiple studies have found that blacks were statistically less likely to use and traffic drugs than their white neighbors. More here.)

As progressive elements in American culture have worked to bring an end to racial discrimination, those most likely to be threatened by ‘Other’ have become more active in resistance. It hasn’t helped that cynical political interests have seized on racism as an easy button to push in gaining avid supporters. Hand in hand with religious extremism, racism is a reliable tool for galvanizing voters. In response, persons elected by these demographics are resistant to passing laws that could feasibly reduce racism or religious extremism.

As a result, racists and religious extremists have become key operatives in hate-fueled reactionary politics. Private schools and homeschooling have increased in direct proportion to forced school integration. Fights over academic standards and tax allocations to schools are essentially fights over whether minorities will have access to equal education. The development and expansion of suburban neighborhoods parallel the consolidation of minority groups in the inner cities. Every advantage offered to Blacks in order to help them break out of the poverty and cultural isolation spawned by their history in America is seen as a direct ‘taking’ by extremist whites.

Their kids. Their jobs. Their tax dollars given away to undeserving welfare queens. The depraved depth of this unreasoning mindset has come to the big screen with Barack Obama’s presidency. Who has more than eight seconds to spare?

Drug laws have spawned a vast and lucrative underworld where the uneducated and stigmatized minority can grab a piece of the American dream. This is the path whereby the white extremist’s worst nightmare comes true. The terrible ‘Other’ is not only clasped to our culture’s bosom through laws attempting to force equality but also empowered to own guns and defy police. That this point has been reached in an accelerating statistic of black on black crime fails to succor the terrified white extremist.

They are coming for you and they have guns, a fear not missed by the gun industry and its lobbyists. Another eight-second response.

The combination of white extremist fear, the fallout of drug prohibition, and the rise of militarized police forces has brought us to the brink of urban warfare.  What might be a routine administrative process in a white neighborhood becomes a major SWAT operation in the black one where fifty men in body armor and wielding assault rifles storm an apartment with flash-bangs and battering rams in order to arrest a single black man. It’s a bigger operation than the take-down of Osama bin Laden.

This would be almost comical if it wasn’t so outrageous. So horrifying. So un-American.

There is nothing that we can do to immediately change the key factors which maintain the ‘Otherness’ of Blacks. They are not going to become light-skinned nor are their facial features going to become more European. They can’t immediately overcome centuries of failure by American law and institutions to facilitate equal and adequate skills conducive to social assimilation.

Unfortunately, there is also little we can do to immediately change the key factors which maintain the prejudices of extremist whites. They are of a willfully ignorant tradition, raised to see the world from an essentially defensive position. Like the minorities they despise, this segment of the white population is more often undereducated and poor. The threat is a misunderstood and exaggerated ‘Other’—other races, other nationalities, other religious beliefs, other lifestyles, other sexualities.

Taking down the Confederate flag as a symbolic act might reassure minorities and awaken whites to the underlying problem. But the backlash isn’t going to quickly die away. The flag has been an important identifier used to mark others of their own kind. Its denigration and disappearance only increases the extremists’ sense of threat.

What we absolutely must understand both on a personal level as well in our politics and public life is how much more remains to be done. Yes, we’ve come a long way. But much remains to be done. Government must become less ambivalent in enforcing meaningful educational standards and in addressing the physical and mental needs of families and children, not just for Blacks who have long suffered the parental nightmare of their children falling through the cracks, but for whites who ironically have the same problem.

Both need better reasoning skills and understanding of history.

Both must be brought to the table where they can meet and become friends with ‘Other.’

We can’t bargain hunt for solutions. We have to put our money on our people. All of them.

A rising tide lifts all boats.

[If you’re wondering about my use of a capital ‘B’ for Blacks and not a capital for whites, here’s some explanation.]