Death Of An Idea

Onyx Contributor:  Tim Druck (@southendtimd)

A few days ago, one of the better actors of our generation was found dead with a needle in his arm.  Philip Seymour Hoffman, aged 46 but looking a full twenty years older, was dead as a result of his heroin addiction.  Hoffman’s best work was done during a years-long clean period in his life, but a 2012 relapse appears to have been permanent.

National drug policy won’t stop a wealthy actor from dying – if he wants heroin, he will fly himself or someone else to Afghanistan or Myanmar or anywhere poppies grow to get it.  A person who wants drugs will find them – look at the things people do to get high. Have you seen what goes into street methamphetamines?  Or this new thing they call krokodil?  Or they’ll turn to legal things – alcohol or solvents or any number of ways to escape or turn on or drop out. Truth is that Hoffman’s death means little to nothing to me.  But Hoffman isn’t the end of the problem, and he isn’t the only one dying.
How long now has this “War on Drugs” gone on?  Since the 1930s, when Federal Bureau of Narcotics Director Harry J. Anslinger said, “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”?  Since 1927, when some long-forgotten Montana legislator said, “When some beet field peon takes a few traces of this stuff… he thinks he has just been elected president of Mexico, so he starts out to execute all his political enemies.”  How about 1934, when a western newspaper editorial opined, “Marihuana influences Negroes to look at white people in the eye, step on white men’s shadows and look at a white woman twice.
What about the 1980s, when mandatory minimum sentences and private prison ownership combined to enrich wealthy stockholders and, via campaign contributions, politicians who nevertheless claimed that the War on Drugs was a morally and societally necessary fight, that heavy penalties even for possession of marijuana (a “dangerous gateway drug”) were the right tool to drive?
What about the 1990s?  That’s when we realized that the enforcement statutes enacted by these self-righteous politicians had created something of an imbalance in our prison system – because of laws such as those that made the prison sentences for possession of a gram of crack up to thirty times longer than the same amount of powder cocaine, as recently as 2002 there were more African-American males in prison than in college.  Thank goodness there has been a 100% increase in black-male enrollment in college since then, since black-male incarceration rates remain about the same.
Maybe the 2000s?  Despite growing public sentiment to the contrary, there are now more marijuana users in prison than Customs officials dedicated to drug smuggling enforcement.  Read that again: there are more people imprisoned in America for use of marijuana than there are people employed to stop cocaine and heroin from entering our country, where those drugs do not grow.  The only thing growing faster than the movement to legalize marijuana is the rate of imprisonment of citizens on marijuana charges – of the people, by the people, for the people indeed.  And millions of kilos of drugs pass our borders every day while TSA agents check the shoes and handbags of little old ladies searching for the terrorist bogeyman.
This “War on Drugs” is a joke – millions of people are in prison TODAY on marijuana charges and ridiculous mandatory minimum sentences, wasting precious resources our nation could be using to stop the importation of dangerous drugs and treating the sufferers of addiction.  Drug policy in the US is driven by the private prison-industrial complex and racist/classist laws from our past, not the goal of removing the most dangerous people and drugs from our streets.
We cannot end drug abuse in America.  See above.
But what we can do is make those drugs insanely expensive for the ordinary user – the reason cocaine isn’t in vogue anymore is that nobody can afford it.  We went after Noriega and Escobar and those guys, we shut down the port of Miami to smugglers, and airport/border security became about drugs.  Now the very little cocaine that comes into America is made into crack because that makes it cheap enough to sell – an example of drug users finding ways to get high – but the cocaine crisis is largely over, and crack will someday be a bad memory to most people.
Meth is eventually going away because the prison penalties are fair for everyone, and Draconian, and it’s getting harder to get the ingredients.  You can’t just go into a Wal-Mart and get everything you need to make meth anymore. You have to show your drivers’ license and sign a log to get pseudoephedrine, and lithium batteries are harder to take apart now.  Rich and poor, white and black, maker, dealer, user – you get caught with meth and you go to prison for a very long time.
But the biggest drug problem in America right now is Opiates – the average user is someone who started with prescribed drugs, either prescribed to them or stolen, and moved on to heroin or morphine when their source dried up or when anti-abuse measures began to take hold.  The path is often Xanax to Vicodin to Oxycontin to Opana or Fentanyl to Suboxone to Heroin.
These drugs come from “pill mill” doctors who will prescribe Oxy or Opana for a toothache or a twisted ankle, hundreds of them at a time, to hundreds of patients at a time, to people who will doctor-shop to get several prescriptions for the same ‘illness.’  Those people either abuse those drugs or sell them to people who will – selling prescriptions is HUGE business in rural areas and small towns, and abuse of the SSI/disability system for drugs is rampant.  When those drugs dry up, or when drug companies introduce measures such as plasticizers to make abusing these pills impossible, addicts turn to street drugs to ward off the horrific effects of physical withdrawal.  And so is made the accidental heroin addict.

While this is happening, police are flying helicopters to find marijuana plants, using multimillion-dollar infrared heat sensors, tracking power bills to find growers, and keeping hundreds of thousands of users, growers and sellers in prisons all over America, over a drug that has never killed a soul, that nobody has ever killed over or for.  Private prison companies are charging governments to house, feed and secure hundreds of thousands of people for smoking weed.  Black men are serving thirty-year sentences for a single crack rock, or life sentences for three barely-felonies, and white dealers are tying up expensive District Attorneys for years with expensive legal fights.

Wouldn’t it make sense to redirect those resources?  Sell those weed helicopters and sensors and use the money to convert the power-bill trackers to systems designed to track bad doctors and prescription shoppers?  You want to eliminate the gateway?  How about cross-referencing doctors, patients, prescriptions and pharmacies with a computer system that can show law-enforcement agencies who is abusing the system – which doctors prescribe larger amounts of powerful painkillers than their peers, and for less severe conditions; which patients see multiple doctors and fill multiple prescriptions for the same drug and/or the same condition – surely insurance companies would be interested in this information; which pharmacies in which locales are distributing more dangerous drugs than others, so that the resources can be focused where they are needed.  Give law-enforcement the tools they need to begin investigations – cops are smart and tough and dedicated, and they see the damage these drugs do to our kids.
Release those non-violent criminals in prison for smoking weed and stop paying private prisons to hold them – instead of paying for prison security, pay for some airport security and buy the Coast Guard some interdiction tools, fast boats, and training.  Allowing private prisons to hold prisoners for profit as well as lobbying for what kind of laws should send people to prison and for how long is a very clear conflict-of interest.  Private prisons should be completely outlawed.  Drugs come from outside America – if America paid half the attention to drug-smuggling at our borders as she does to the search for non-existent containers of AK-47s and dirty bombs, smuggling could be reduced by a huge degree.  More customs agents, less corrections officers.
Treatment.  Education.  Whatever happened to DARE?  And a discussion of treatment vs. enforcement is a paper of its own, but suffice it to say that the nations of the earth that treat drug addiction like a public-health concern rather than crime are the ones with the lowest drug-abuse rates.
It’s too late to save Philip Seymour Hoffman or the millions of kids his name should come to represent.  But we can fight and solve the drug problem in ways that make sense, so that only those wealthy and/or desperate enough to go to great lengths to get drugs can do so.  And that would be a start.

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