In reading this piece keep in mind that I’m a former drug/heroin dealer and convict–that is I represent someone who has the practical experience of “having been there.” And currently, as a criminal justice professor and social worker, I have the added experience tied to my work with programs and projects centered on the problems at hand. With this being noted I trust you’ll give what follows your due consideration.
A while back I was doing some research on the grand jury process and I had been referred to an article written in the Yale Law Journal on that topic. As I was thumbing through that edition my attention was diverted by another article that dealt with the drug issue. In specific, it was an article that conveyed what had transpired at a conference at Yale University, involving a number of prominent experts, focused on the burgeoning narcotics trade in the U.S. It detailed to a significant extent how profit was being made in the illegal heroin trade, the corruption that had occurred within law enforcement, the unequal application of the law, the violence that surrounded the trafficking, the burden placed on the prison processes and the overall lack of productive results with the affected population. Given all this, the conference discussion turned to an agreement among the participants that the current law enforcement/criminal justice policies pointed at interdicting and controlling the drug trade were simply failing. In this light it was being suggested that a major portion of the problem could be better addressed via taking the profit out of the equation–it would cost the government little more than a dollar to produce what was being sold in the streets for hundreds–while moving the addiction and treatment concerns into the mental health arena. Most of the criminal activity and public harm would be significantly reduced and those immersed in heroin use could be better taken care of with clean needles and clean drugs provided in a clinic-type system where counseling and/or attention to health and nutrition could also be passed along.
The most prominent feature of this article was it was dated April 1953!
A significant amount of time (and resources) had passed since I adopted similar views. In fact I continually presented the legalization logic to others in classroom and public discussions on not only the heroin concern but the problems associated with prostitution and gambling (commonly phrased as “victimless crimes” due to their consensual, albeit troublesome nature). In short, making these activities illegal seemed to create more problems than solutions, which coincidentally had been evidenced by the prohibition of alcohol. (Just consider what prohibition did for organized crime!)
In this sense legalization was, at its worst, the lesser of evils. And as the nearly 70-year-old Yale article made clear the approach presented a strategy that had appealed to experts for quite some time.
With this being said it seems again time, on this 50th anniversary of a misguided policy, to take a closer look at the actualities of a change in direction. Even though problems would remain (addiction of any sort is not easy to address and there are always new substances to be concerned about) it would be more humane, more cost-effective, more, well, everything if we altered our current interdict and control efforts. So, at a minimum, the legalization-clinic strategy should now be prominent on the public’s discussion table, encouraging more dialogue and education.
If one considers the development of methadone clinics, which simply replace one dependency for another while allowing the trafficking to continue, one has to wonder why not provide the real substance, as this would have a more comprehensive effect on the problems at hand. And although some suggest this might increase the propensity for more drug use, it would be important to consider that in any number of surveys, people stay away from drugs not as much for their illegality, but from a choice related to one’s personal and/or professional health.
I’ll caution that as logical as this strategy might sound, the drug “businesses,” like the prison and criminal justice industrial complexes, may well hamper any legitimate initiatives pointed at a change in policy. The history of “illegalization,” with its long-term, political and economic ties to the system “as it is,” is clearly a worthy foe. In this context one has only to compare our ongoing commitment to the oil-addiction-war formula as opposed to the more enlightened and environmentally healthy, yet often ignored, alternatives. Said another way the profit motive, even in light of its clear shortcomings, may well remain the controlling factor.
Fortunately, we seem to be on the path these days of trying to make better “public good” rather than “profit”-focused choices. With more emphasis on our desire to care for one another and more dialogue being offered accordingly, conventional “wisdom” is no doubt being challenged. In this light the War on Drugs may soon be replaced by more informed public policies. And as all evidence suggests we have legitimate possibilities close at hand.