by Burt Walker
The War on Drugs is an unmitigated failure and has exacerbated the addiction crisis gripping America. Legalization offers a solution.
In April 2016 my then-23-year-old daughter told me she was an addict and asked for my help. This began a journey of heartache, frustration, fear, and anger. My desperate search for information yielded a vast array of quackery, fraud, greed, and sometimes well-meaning individuals spewing opinions based on little evidence. After careful consideration and copious research, I completely reversed my opinion about how to deal with our problems with drug abuse. Below is partly a rant, part pleading, but also a reasoned call for an end to the war on drugs.
If we’re going to fight a war, should we not at the very onset, at least ask why? If so, it is incumbent on us to define the problem. Here’s how most of our war practitioners view our war on drugs:
Illegal drug use is bad for society; therefore we should do everything we can to stop their use.
Indeed, this is an assumption upon which nearly all of our policies on drugs are derived. Unfortunately, it has a built-in logical fallacy that relies upon an inaccurate and unproven assumption. If, for example, one could show that the ‘illegal’ part actually causes the ‘bad for society’ part, then the assumption falls apart. Reasoned, fact-based analysis of the problem has never been a serious consideration among the political elite who apparently are endowed with the knowledge needed to solve such a problem. Here’s a little-known fact: They are in fact not endowed with such knowledge, and the basis under which they operate is based on false information.
Defining the problem
One has to wonder if the legality question is given anything more than a single slide in a long deck of Powerpoint slides when policy-makers spend millions evaluating the prosecution of their war. But since they won’t bother with it, I will. Let’s examine some of the more pressing social problems associated with drug abuse:
- Addiction and its corresponding negative effects on individuals and their families.
- Death by overdose.
- Disease (hepatitis, AIDS, and other blood-borne diseases).
- Burglary, theft, robbery by addicts for purposes of buying their drugs.
- Black market feuds between gangs and other organized crime leading to widespread murder and mayhem.
- Possession of illegal substances.
- Sale of illegal substances.
- Consumption of illegal substances.
“Politicians love to toss out the phrase, ‘evidence-based solutions,’ but their solutions are in fact, just the opposite.”
It’s interesting to note that, with the exception of the first in the list above, the rest would not be a problem if the drugs were freely available without artificial barriers. This is perhaps a perfect illustration of a problem caused by the solution, resulting from improperly identifying the problem. The consequences of items 4 through 8 above should not be ignored, yet they are a matter of intense focus by our law enforcement, judicial, and penal systems and comprise nearly the entire policy based solution set for this failed war.
Politicians love to toss out the phrase, evidence-based solutions, but their solutions are anything but. The U.S. war on drugs began in 1970 with the Controlled Substances Act and followed in 1971 of President Nixon’s declaration of war, calling illicit substances, “public enemy number one.” And what do we have to show for this nearly 50-year-old war? The problems only got worse. If evidence were properly considered, we’d recognise that we are losing the war. At the very least, the evidence would lead us to seek different solutions. Unfortunately, that’s not how politics works. Instead, we are doubling down on a failed policy.
We now have 50 years of evidence to suggest our prosecution of the war on drugs is a dismal failure.
Free Market Solutions
Imagine if we eliminated all laws against the manufacture, distribution, sale, and consumption of these drugs. That alone would substantially diminish or eliminate all but the first of the problems identified above, and it would happen virtually overnight. This gets us back to what those laws were intended to do but failed, to resolve.
Some might suggest that legalising these drugs will make the addiction problem worse. And we have credible evidence this is false. It is perhaps the biggest pilot project ever conducted. It was tried by an entire country (Portugal) with a population of over 10 million people beginning in 2001. Portugal decriminalised all drugs. The results of the experiment are unambiguous. By 2012, their policies reduced injection drug use by 50 per cent and addiction, overdoses, AIDS by substantial amounts. Their success continues today.
Further, imagine the cost savings to law enforcement and our judicial and penal systems if we simply made the drugs legal. Okay, that addresses the problem of criminality, but what does it do for the addiction problem itself? We could take some cues from Portugal. They didn’t just decriminalise drugs; they took the money they had previously spent on enforcement and punishment and reapplied it to recovery solutions. They even used some of the money as incentives for businesses to give recovering addicts jobs.
“We should begin exploring solutions by establishing a new intellectual dark web (IDW), specifically with those involved in the treatment and scholarly study of addiction.”
We seem to spend a lot of time trying to point fingers of blame at various industries such as big pharma, over-prescribing doctors, etc. There may be some element of truth in this because in any industry there are bad actors, but they are not the cause. These players are simply suppliers in a market that demands to be fed. Why we didn’t learn the lessons of prohibition (18th Amendment), I’ll never understand.
We should begin exploring solutions by establishing a new intellectual dark web (IDW), specifically with those involved in the treatment and scholarly study of addiction. This IDW would permit long form discussions among experts to field their views and ideas in a non-threatening way. From that might come some solutions, or if nothing else, unfiltered education for those who want to learn without being funnelled through an agenda and without the commercial constraints of more conventional mainstream television. There are current participants in the IDW who can get this conversation off to a good start. Hello Dave Rubin or Joe Rogan, are you listening?
Back To The Problem
ADDICTION AND THE CORRESPONDING NEGATIVE EFFECTS. As the father of a recovering addict, I understand well the effects addiction has on families and those afflicted with the condition. In my opinion, this is the only part of this war that isn’t either caused or exacerbated by the war on drugs. It can be devastating financially, emotionally, and can consume your entire life. Helping with this problem should include education–particularly about the various recovery models. And no, we don’t need public funding to tell people drugs are dangerous. All addicts already knew this before they began abusing drugs.
Perhaps the first and most important lesson we should learn is who is vulnerable to addiction. We tend to rate addicts by class. At the lowest level are the homeless addicts that shoot heroin and all too frequently die in a dirty room with a needle in their arms. These are the ones that are supposedly worthy of contempt. At the highest level, there are the poor businessmen, soccer moms, football stars, etc., who by no fault of their own got addicted to opioids after recovering from a procedure or surgery. For some reason, these addicts don’t suffer the same stigma as the homeless street addict. Keep in mind; this didn’t qualify as an epidemic until the latter class began having the problem. Funny how that works. And yes, no matter which class of addict you are, you do have culpability. It was at the very least, partly your fault.
The bottom line, every addict became that way by their own actions, all knowing the risks of addiction. Why they became vulnerable and succumbed is a different story entirely. Suffice it to say, some people are more prone to addiction than others and according to many studies, most have suffered some emotional trauma (typically sexual abuse as a child) in their earlier lives. The link between early childhood sexual abuse and addiction is both sad and staggering. In effect, this is a PTSD problem and thus treatable by mental health professionals.
Ask yourself why most people can drink alcohol without becoming alcoholics. It’s because they’re not prone to addiction. Somehow, we manage to have a civil society that can drink alcohol safely without all of them becoming raging alcoholics. There is no reason to assume we cannot do the same with other addictive substances. Despite what you may have been told, you will not become an addict just because you take opioids. You will only become an addict if you use them outside the parameters of their prescription for an extended period. I suspect, and some studies suggest, that every addict would have become an addict regardless of the legal availability of their drug of choice, including alcohol. And studies of veterans returning from Vietnam who used heroin showed a remarkable ability to stop using when they returned–without the need for recovery services. Ninety-five per cent did not become addicts. Those that did become addicts were likely suffering from severe PTSD.
DEATH FROM OVERDOSE. Unless you assume that overdose deaths are suicide (there is no evidence to suggest they are), overdoses are accidents. They are the result of the user taking too much of the drug that caused the overdose. The problem nearly always lies in the user not knowing the strength of the drug they are taking. All too often heroin is spiked with fentanyl or carfentanil, synthetic drugs which are hundreds of times more powerful than the most potent heroin.
How do we diminish this problem? It’s really quite simple. Make them legal to purchase–and yes, without a doctor’s prescription. Every barrier in the way of obtaining a product is an incentive for black market activity. Make them legal and easily accessible. By doing so, the addict at least knows the strength of what he’s buying. Overdose deaths will plummet to a fraction of what they are today.
BLOODBORNE DISEASES. This problem gets little attention when compared to actual deaths, but it is a problem nevertheless. Without the stigma (legal and otherwise) associated with addiction, readily and easily available tools for injection would become more prevalent and more sanitary. Clean needle programs are popping up in large urban areas where addiction is heavily concentrated. They’re being shown to not only reduce disease but as a clever, safe way to introduce addicts to recovery programs.
BURGLARY, THEFT, AND ROBBERY BY ADDICTS. This is perhaps the one area where the legal, judicial and penal systems were not the source of the problem. If addicts have no money, they will seek it out any way possible to obtain their drugs, which includes theft. It is a compulsive desire and need for the drug. This is what differentiates dependence and addiction. And if someone commits crimes of theft, they should be punished. However, if it is found that criminals are committing the crimes because of addiction, treatment should be the first order of the day, not incarceration. Incarceration does nothing in the form of restitution for the victims of theft, and simply temporarily puts the thief out of business, only to be repeated when they’ve served their term. And if their addiction hasn’t been properly treated, the thief will continue to be a thief, and the process repeats itself, all at the expense of taxpayers. Will legalising illicit drugs solve this problem? No, but it might diminish them, primarily because the cost of the habit will go down substantially with the advent of free market mechanisms.
“The sooner we divest ourselves of the notion that we can eliminate the demand, the better off we will be.”
BLACK MARKET FEUDS AND VIOLENCE. This might perhaps be the single best reason to legalise drugs. When we see the daily body count in Chicago from gangland violence, make no mistake about the reasons for this. It is by far the result of gangland battles over the control of drugs on the streets. While it would not eliminate gang activity, we can be assured the death count, and other violence will diminish to a great degree. Use of mind-altering drugs has been part of the human condition for millennia. Black markets will always serve when demand exists. In the immortal words of Dr Ian Malcom in Jurassic Park, “Life finds a way,” and so will the supply of illegal drugs. The sooner we divest ourselves of the notion that we can eliminate the demand, the better we will be. Unfortunately, black market operations bring with them the negatives of operating outside the law. Remove the black market incentive, and those negatives disappear.
[T]here is a vested financial interest in continuing this war on drugs. How else would local law enforcement agencies justify their massive militarisation campaigns?
POSSESSION, SALE, AND CONSUMPTION OF ILLEGAL SUBSTANCES. Make them legal to possess, and the crime disappears. It is that simple. And for the simple minded, no this is not a fallacy in the sense that making murder legal would make the crime disappear. You see, with murder, there is a victim. With possession, sale, and consumption, there is no victim. It is simply a matter of allowing people to engage in preferred activity with consenting adults. To those who suggest that the person buying drugs is a victim of the seller, this is not the case, because the buyer voluntarily chose to enter that transaction. For something that happens to the buyer after that, it is quite simply the buyer’s choice that led to it.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world continues to cast a blind eye toward Portugal. There could be a number of reasons for this but rest assured, most of them are related to politics and money. You see, there is a vested financial interest in continuing this war on drugs. How else would local law enforcement agencies justify their massive militarisation campaigns? And the courts, no longer being clogged with victimless crimes, could no longer justify their budgets and in some cases, their jobs. Then there are the external companies that owe their entire existence to supporting this mess, like the companies that serve the justice system by supplying monitoring and drug testing services. They all feed off of addiction, supported by billions of taxpayer dollars. And let’s not forget, there is big money in the recovery industry, mostly tied to health insurance. Finally, what would we do without our politicians being able to use this crisis as a campaign issue?
In the end, if the government is going to take action to diminish our addiction problem, we should be doing so as a public health initiative, not a criminal prosecution of war. In the end, the primary role played by the government should be to end to prohibition and do nothing else but encourage a discussion about possible free market solutions. As counter-intuitive as it may sound, legalising the substances will go a long way toward accomplishing that goal. It’s a matter of defining the problem, ensuring the solutions do not make it worse and using evidenced-based solutions which have shown to work.
Burt Walker is a retired software engineer, businessman, and entrepreneur. He received his MBA from Troy University in 1986. He is the father of a daughter who is a recovering heroin addict which led him to research the causes and solutions of addiction.