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November 13, 2011

Drug War Elephants and Saturday Night Speculation

Any public policy that fails as predictably as our "drug war" (forty years and counting) requires some mechanism to distract attention from those failures while carefully avoiding pointed questions and frank discussion. In the case of the drug war those protections are helped considerably by the widely accepted notion that the designated enemy, drug addiction- especially if it threatens children- is so heinous that any relaxation in the fight against it is unacceptable. Thus has a false doctrine come to rely on an equally false moral imperative. The facile deduction then becomes that anyone criticizing American drug policy must be either a fuzzy headed idealist or a would-be drug dealer who wants to sell drugs to "kids" (defined since by the Reagan Administration as anyone under the age of 21).

As the drug war has evolved since passage of the Controlled Substances Act, its prime objective has became "taking down" evil drug networks and incarcerating (or killing) their "kingpins." Numerous failures to do so have been either glossed over by supportive media or portrayed as partial successes: i.e., keeping bad drugs “off the street,” without acknowledging that what put them there was our stubborn faith to prohibition, a policy of proven failure. The huge tax-free profits produced by illegal markets are only possible under prohibition law (despite its classification as a policy of “control”). They are made available to violent criminals competing in an industry with no rule but survival. The most successful are able to bribe corrupt public officials (never in short supply) and hire the most skilled attorneys to represent them. Eventually, all kingpins are replaced by someone luckier or more unscrupulous than they are. In other words, the prohibition law that has underpinned American drug policy since 1970 really protects a criminal industry that has nurtured some of the worst people in contemporary society.

Another effective drug war tactic has been to refer to any "substance" the US Attorney General lists on “Schedule One” as a (presumably addictive) "drug of abuse” without acknowledging that a) “addiction” has never been precisely defined, b) lacks the characteristics that permit accurate medical diagnosis, c) none of the drugs on Schedule One are as addictive or harmful as cigarettes, and d) the clinical outcomes of illegal drug users under the purview of law enforcement are impeded by unrealistic demands that they remain “drug free;” in other words, the limited success of methadone and nicotine maintenance programs suggest that people with problematic drug habits could become (and remain) productive citizens if they had unfettered access to a safe form of their problem drug and appropriate medical help.

I must admit to having been taken in myself by the steady stream of drug war propaganda that began emanating from the DEA and NIDA, the two federal agencies created in the Seventies to enforce and defend the CSA as policy. Even then, I found it easy to remember that alcohol Prohibition had been an ill conceived social disaster; thus I retained very skeptical of Richard Nixon as President, which may explain why I remember exactly where I was when I first heard about the the Saturday Night Massacre on my car radio (I was returning home from an emergency hospital visit) and realized immediately that it could lead to impeachment.

In retrospect, it's clear that Nixon brought about his own downfall; the break-in probably wouldn't have been regarded as that serious had he not elevated it to that level with his own hubris and refusal to admit a mistake. From October 20, 1973, until his announced departure on August 9, 1974, my car radio and attention remained tuned in to Watergate. I’ve not followed any evolving news story any more avidly and still see its outcome as a rare “win” for the good guys.

What I've also learned about Nixon's drug war in ten years spent interviewing cannabis users is that while it had been a human disaster, it was probably motivated by his own unhappy childhood. Even more ironically its circumstances are uncannily similar to those documented in the histories of patients seeking a recommendation to use it legally.

The tragic irony is that had Nixon been born fifty years later, he could well have become a marijuana user himself; an event that would probably have prevented his political success, but would also have made him a lot happier and the rest of us a lot better off.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at November 13, 2011 04:55 AM