"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Failed Drug Policy–Finally Time to Decriminalize

Most people of my generation did a lot of drugs in the Sixties and Seventies.   It is hard to imagine with today’s hysteria surrounding drug consumption that dope was everywhere.  You could walk down any street in New York and smell weed.  Dopers didn’t even try to hide it.  Outdoor rock concerts were covered in a haze of pot smoke, people dropped acid, and tried everything that could get you high. Many even fell for the Yippee banana peel put-on.  In the days before the Internet, the live dope-vine was hot with how to smoke it.  Did you have to cure the banana peel?  Cook it? Dry it? And then finally after thousands of wannabees seared their lungs with Chiquita skins.  Getting high was simply what you did.  I had a close friend who took acid to alleviate his migraines.  He dropped so much of it that he worked behind it.  He said that as a mathematician he got universal insights, got a glimpse of the very nature of numbers, and felt that he could help solve the Universal Field Theory that had eluded Einstein.  I remember him poring over the chicken scratches he had made the night before, trying to make sense out of them.  Whatever insights he got were lost in translation.

It was an era of dope, acid, and magic mushrooms.  Heroin, cocaine, and speed were no-noes both because they could truly fuck you up and because they were ghetto or cracker.  That changed, of course, as the hallucinogenic 70s morphed into the Me Generation.  Coke was the drug of choice because when you were on your way up, it added rocket fuel to the ride. Freebasing and crack changed the calculus.  Coke was not just the recreational drug of the upwardly mobile, it became the ghetto drug. A few rocks of crack could get you off and for a half-hour you could leave the shit-hole you lived in, all at an affordable price.  The free market had worked its wonders again – a cheap high, that got you quickly addicted, leading to increased demand, higher prices, and higher profits.  The drug wars ensued, Washington became the murder capital of the US and the pop-pop of gunfire was heard all across the Anacostia.

The United States could easily have envisaged decriminalization of marijuana or even legalizing it in the early 70s.  It was truly recreational, and although some people abused it (again, thanks to the miracle of the marketplace super-dope, a potent mix of Moroccan hashish laced with opium, became available, and you could go zombie), most got stoned to goof on Jersey day-trippers, wow on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, sit in the front row of showings of 2001 knock-offs, and get meaningful.  No one was doing acid as a puke-free Jack Daniels.  It was for enlightenment.  It didn’t matter if the enlightenment faded quickly in the light of day when New York looked just as trashy as the day before and lame parents busted you for your room.  It was part of the zeitgeist.  Drugs defined the era, they were self-regulated, and no more dangerous than alcohol.

That Golden Age seems far, far away. Even the drug wars in DC between Jamaican posses and local chiefs seems tame by comparison to the slaughter just across the Border.  The civil war in Colombia, fueled by cocaine and sustained by it long before it should have ended was an even worse decades-long tragedy.  The wheels had come completely off the day-glo VW Hippie Van driven by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.

The US Government turned to what it knows best – military force.  Government agents armed to the teeth became an organized paramilitary force working alongside of foreign government military cadres paid off with American largesse to destroy fields of poppies, marijuana, or coca; to search our and destroy drug labs and trafficker dens; and, through the ever-present and ever-ineffectual USAID, offer incentives to farmers to change their cropping patterns.

The results are well-known.  Despite decades of effort and billions of dollars of taxpayer money, we are not better off than we ever were.  In fact we are worse off because the drug industry and related violence in Mexico has destabilized the relations between our two countries.  Illegal immigrants in the US waiting for an opportunity to return home and tempted by Mexico’s economic progress were reluctant to go back to a world of gunfire and mayhem.  Numerous countries in the Americas and the Caribbean were corrupted by the drug trade. Haitian dictators after the Duvaliers were openly dealing in the drug trade offering their country as a convenient transit stop for Colombian cocaine. 

Although the US military well knew that the heroin trade was financing the Taliban, they could do nothing about it.  Even in the coca-producing countries of South America, American attempts to curb supply failed because the demand in the US was so high.  The cycle of production, corruption, violence, trafficking, and production kept turning at a faster and faster rate.  There was no way that American officials could keep up with it.

In an article in the Guardian (10.17.12) Simon Jenkins reports on the same phenomenon in Great Britain, and notes with particular attention the absolute sacrosanct nature of British drug policy – a ‘war on drugs’ - and the ‘fear’ of politicians to even suggest anything less.

Each year governments re-legislate their "war on terror", despite the minimal threat, but reject any need to revise the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. They refuse to see if it is working, and do nothing but waste public money.

Home secretaries trumpet idiotic "drug seizures". They pass "awareness" budgets, arrest and imprison thousands of citizens for drug possession and sale. The war has failed. But it continues to immiserate countless families and wreck countless lives. It is stupid, knee-jerk British government at its worst.

Once again Britain and the United States are joined at the hip on another issue despite the folly if not idiocy of throwing billions of dollars and pounds at a problem that current policy will not resolve. The Lady Runciman’s Police Foundation inquiries have found that:

Government action is immaterial, drug consumption being unaffected by changes in classification, prison sentencing or education. Drug use seems to ebb and flow with price, fashion and, in the case of ecstasy and skunk, perceived harm. None of this stopped the home secretary, Theresa May, beating her chest and howling her rejection of Runciman from the rooftops.

The key conclusion in this report is what I have italicized – there is a drug free market operating and in tends, like all markets, to be regulated by supply and demand.  Particular drugs come and go given consumer perceptions about them.  Some well-educated and ‘progressive’ coke users drop the habit because they are aware of the mayhem it causes up and down the distribution chain.  Others, concerned about image, flee cocaine because of its increasingly ghetto image.  Others are simply wiser younger, and realize that it is not worth their money and their health.  Acid is like, so Sixties, and not the cachet drug of the earlier era.  Heroin is off-limits to most because of the persistent fear of  AIDS.

Few people argue for a total dismantling of all drug restrictions, and those who argue for decriminalization and/or legalization agree that some restrictions on sale must be in place.  Just as tobacco and alcohol cannot be purchased by anyone under 21, so might cannabis be so restricted.  Some states still restrict alcohol sales to State Stores, and similar government outlets may be an acceptable political route to follow. 

Treating cannabis like alcohol and tobacco would not only fill the tax coffers of penurious state governments, it would lessen the need for the draconian and counter-productive measures now in place to prosecute the so-called war on drugs.  As august a Libertarian organization as the Cato Institute has argued that taxing drugs is a more sensible way of dealing with supply and demand than any other measure.

The issue of harder drugs like heroin and cocaine are harder to legislate; but relatively few people, compared to marijuana, the most commonly consumed drug in America and the major export of Mexican drug traders, do heroin.  It is the drug of the desperate and the uneducated and surely ‘progressive’ programs of prevention and especially treatment can be made available for this small clientele.  Cocaine is a more intractable problem, but its dangers are not evident.  Most cocaine users do not shoot it and risk infection and many more are casual users.  The number of drug overdoses, health care costs relative to rehabilitation, and societal costs are relatively minor compared to other threats such as car accidents, political terrorism, and new virulent viruses.

In short, because of the look-but-don’t-touch attitude of politicians towards alternate drug control policies, no real cost-benefit analysis has taken place.  As importantly, in America, any consideration of liberalizing drug laws runs into the buzz-saw of religious fundamentalism.  It is simply wrong to even think of greasing the slide into perdition which would be a virtual certainty with increased access to Demon Dope.

As Jonathan Haidt has argued in his book The Righteous Mind, political attitudes on most things, certainly drugs, are irrational, rooted in tribe and upbringing. Politicians who stuff their brains with alcohol, nicotine and amphetamines view ecstasy, cannabis and cocaine as dangerous exotics, like the black death or yellow peril, imported from dusky parts to corrupt the young. They shudder at decriminalization, relying instead on their favorite legislative juju – "sending a message" and washing their hands.

Jenkins concludes his article with a sharp criticism of British drug laws, and it can be applied directly to the American experience:

here is no reason in all this. We are dealing with the darkest of bourgeois taboos. Of all the things on which the world has declared "war" in modern times, self-harming substances must be the daftest. Yet the result has been to destroy millions of lives, expend trillions of dollars, and helplessly corrupt sovereign states, from Afghanistan to Colombia. It is the greatest single failure of modern statecraft. It is the dark ages, and we are still in them.

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