Drug Prohibition, Accessibility, and Addiction: This Former Addict Says Yes to Legalization
By Elan Morgan on November 08, 2010
Given recent news about California's move to legalize marijuana and a new study that shows alcohol to be more harmful than heroin, I have been giving my personal history with drugs and alcohol some thought, especially as it relates to the impact of social influence on my choices, and by choices, I mean my colorful past with regard to getting high.
I have done enough LSD that you might be surprised at how well I keep in touch with reality. I used to smoke pot as a matter of course every day. I gave crystal meth a shot, because I knew the chemist, and, hell, why not? I smoked cigarettes enthusiastically for twenty-one years. Once upon a time until about two-and-a-half months ago when I admitted publicly to my alcoholism and embraced sobriety, I drank so much on a regular basis that I blacked out two or three times a week and couldn't remember how I came home. So, what I am about to reveal here with regard to my thoughts on drugs, accessibility, and legalization might surprise you:
I support the legalization of all drugs, or, at the very least, the decriminalization of possession and personal use.
This is a contentious stance to take. Whenever it comes up in conversation, people invariably turn to talk of addiction in general or mention someone that they lost to addiction or talk about their own negative experience with one drug or another. I get that. I lost a friend to heroin. I have watched the mannerisms of someone I know slowly devolve into a twitchy mash, symptoms of a brain damaged by long-term alcohol abuse. I am battling alcoholism myself. Addiction to drugs and alcohol can destroy individuals and families in startlingly sad ways, but the issue of addiction and the issue of legalization are not necessarily bound together in the ways that our society's messages about them seem to dictate. Your brother's crack addiction lost him his job and my friend's love of the needle killed him, and both of those things happened despite the fact that the drugs they were taking were illegal.
Drug prohibition doesn't work.
America's history with the prohibition of alcohol is a good example of what happens when you don't follow the old wisdom to keep your friends close but your enemies closer. When the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol was banned during Prohibition, also known as The Noble Experiment, in the United States between 1920 and 1933, people did not stop selling, manufacturing, and transporting alcohol. They just did it illegally. What had been an above board industry beforehand was now pushed underground, spawning covert, organized, and widespread criminal activity with extremely violent side effects.
Just as making alcohol illegal directly created a vicious underground criminal industry during Prohibition, so it works now with marijuana, heroin, and other illicit drugs. The same kind of black market industry birthed by The Noble Experiment is now being fostered and supported by drug prohibition.
Marijuana grows, quite literally, like a weed all over the world, poppies will not be eradicated from the earth, the coca plant is an important aspect of the culture in some areas of South America, and salvia divinorum runs rampant in ditches without a thought for its effect on the minds of high school students. Drugs are accessible and will remain accessible simply because we live on a planet that continues to create what we need to get high, with or without our rules to the contrary. This means that, law or no law, drug prohibition can only fail to stop the flow of the substances it purports to prohibit in the first place. The ingredients exist to be dealt with, and if we won't manufacture and distribute the product, someone else will.
Cocaine is the well-known drug of choice for restaurant and bar employees. Meth is cheap as borscht and as easy to come by. Marijuana's so common that, while we are surprised that Zach Galifianakis pulled out a joint on television, we are not surprised that he was even able to find some at all.
If we want the drugs, we can have them, whether they are legal or not. If our attempt to keep certain drugs illegal is born out of a desire to decrease criminal activity and the toll of addiction on our society, then we are doing a terrible job of it, and the thriving criminal industry and desperate face of American addiction is the proof in the pudding.
That the system of drug prohibition in the United States is a failure has not escaped notice. In 1996, the New York County Lawyers' Association put out its Report and Recommendations of the Drug Policy Task Force, in which it criticized American drug policies as not only being ineffective but directly harmful and counterproductive. The report is a few years old, but its message is still relevant:
...a growing body of evidence and opinion suggests that contemporary drug policy, as pursued in recent decades, may be counterproductive and even harmful to the society whose public safety it seeks to protect. This conclusion becomes more readily apparent when one distinguishes the harms suffered by society and its members directly attributable to the pharmacological effects of drug use upon human behavior, from those harms resulting from policies attempting to eradicate drug use.
With aid of these distinctions, we see that present drug policy appears to contribute to the increase of violence in our communities. It does so by permitting and indeed, causing the drug trade to remain a lucrative source of economic opportunity for street dealers, drug kingpins and all those willing to engage in the often violent, illicit, black market trade.
Meanwhile, the effect of present policy serves to stigmatize and marginalize drug users, thereby inhibiting and undermining the efforts of many such individuals to remain or become productive, gainfully employed members of society. Furthermore, current policy has not only failed to provide adequate access to treatment for substance abuse, it has, in many ways, rendered the obtaining of such treatment, and of other medical services, more difficult and even dangerous to pursue.
The issue of drug legalization is about elevating the state of public health and decreasing violent crime. Legalization would not only grossly decrease black market trade and the violence that accompanies it, but it would also change the problem of drugs in our society from being primarily about law and order to being primarily about public health. Rather than spend approximately $20 billion every year on beating back a criminal system that illegal drugs itself created and now perpetuates, those billions could be spent on preventative education, addiction treatment, and industry regulation, which regulation could potentially result in nearly $77 billion injected into the American economy through law enforcement savings and tax revenue.
One could also argue that legalization would increase the population's accessibility to drugs, but that would be a legal accessibility increase in a world in which illegal accessibility is already fairly high. Accessibility overall might not actually increase as much you would think. What would increase with legal accessibility, though, is drug regulation, education, and treatment, which would mean safer and cleaner access overall.
Before anyone gets their knickers twisted up about how everyone would be shoving pixie sticks stuffed with cocaine up their noses if it was legalized, stop. Very few of us are going to suddenly drop what we're doing and spend the rest of our lives high. According to a 2009 study, adults in the Netherlands have a lower rate of marijuana use than the European average, even with the legalization of marijuana in its "coffee shops". Also, despite the Dutch having cannabis for sale in public, it is not at all likely that the legalization of drugs in the United States would allow for the sale of heroin bars and cocaine pixie sticks at the local 7-11. Just as other legal yet addictive drugs like morphine are controlled, so could our presently illegal substances be, and probably without actively supporting all the violence our present system of prohibition enjoys.
When I dabbled in a variety of intoxicants as a budding addict over twenty years ago, alcohol best suited my needs. It relieved me of my inhibitions, elevated my mood, and helped me to sleep in a way that the other drugs did not. That is how alcohol and I went from being nodding acquaintances to bosom buddies. For an old friend of mine, though, it was cocaine that took care of his need for a sense of drive and self-importance. Addiction is not as simple an equation as accessibility + any individual consuming that drug = addiction. If that were the case, I and a good number of the people I know would be alcoholic, meth-headed, acid-freak, ecstacy-popping stoners. Instead, I am just an alcoholic, and most of the people I know aren't addicted to anything at all.
Addiction is a complicated knot of issues upon which the prohibition of drugs has little to no positive effect, and, in fact, is shown to cause great harm, if the numbers coming out of Portugal are to be believed. Portugal, while still penalizing drug traffickers, decriminalized the personal use and possession of heroin, cocaine, marijuana, and other drugs in 2001 after deaths and cases of HIV linked to drug use were on the rise. Within five years, drug overdoses dropped by nearly 28% and HIV cases attributed to injection drug use dropped by over 71%. This is what happens when addicts receive treatment rather than prison sentences. This is what happens when compassion for individuals takes precedence over a simplistic and decontextualized focus on particular substances.
The effects of drug prohibition are inhumane. It requires a misguided and aggressive focus on a particular set of substances, fostering a lack of humanity for the individuals and families struggling with addiction to those substances. It prefers to incarcerate small-time users, traffickers, and kingpins alike without contextualizing the problem to seek compassionate solutions where appropriate.
American drug prohibition is not so unlike a blind attempt to drain the ocean while cursing the water rather than to rescue the drowning victims who are flailing their arms in the waves.
Where do you rest on the prohibition/decriminalization/legalization issue? How do you feel that the present state of drug prohibition has affected you, your family, friends, and society at large?