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Wednesday, August 11, 2004

The War On Drugs: Whom Are We Really Fighting?

We have heard it time and again. The drugs are destroying our communities. Young lives full of promise are snuffed out by the scourge of drug addiction. Vicious gangs force our children into doing their dirty work,- selling drugs on street corners. Young girls are forced into prostitution to support their addiction. We have all seen pictures of cocaine babies. The pundits, the politicians, the executive officials have spoken and told us that this is a plague that must be destroyed. And if it takes a war to eradicate this plague,- so be it, we will fight the war on drugs and we shall prevail.

However, there are different ways to look at it. One perspective would be that some view some drugs considered illegal in the US perfectly safe and even useful. I once met a veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan who credits hashish with saving his life as, according to his description, this was a way to get rid of stress and get oneself together without the drunken stupor caused by alcohol. The medical use of marijuana is another area where the drug's positive effects are well documented. Cocaine makes one extra-alert; I suppose there are situations when that could come in handy,- to help an exhausted soldier or firefighter stay focused, for instance. Of course, for drugs to have a positive effect they must be used in moderation, but the same is true of pretty much everything. One needs to just walk the streets of pretty much any US city to see the results of our failure to know moderation when it comes to food consumption.

Another view of the situation is that the drug addicts are sick. They can no longer control their urges, thus they can not be held responsible in a court of law, nor can they be expected to avoid committing crimes if these crimes hold a promise of their next fix for them. With that in mind, it comes as no surprise that demand (the addicts) brings supply (the drug dealers) onto the scene. Hence, according to this model, the solution ought to be registration and treatment for drug addicts, with the distribution for those who have not yet been weaned of their drug of choice.

Yet another view,- the one I favor the most,- is that drug use is a matter of personal choice. It should be completely decriminalized. It is officially considered a crime, while, so long as you merely consume drugs you harm no one but yourself. If you commit a crime, whether while intoxicated or not, it is this crime you ought to be prosecuted for. I favor that view. Yes, there are holes in it. Of course a drug addict does not merely harm himself as it is also his family, friends and the community that suffers. But the same is true of a person who eats unhealthy food, incurs heart trouble as a result and dies of a heart attack at a young age. Or of a person who becomes addicted to alcohol,- which is legal.

These views likely do not even begin to represent the whole spectrum. They should suffice to show, however, that the narrow view accepted by several consecutive US administrations is not the only way to look at the picture,- likely, not even the correct way. But let us stop our lofty flight into theory and come back to the reality on the ground. And the picture there ain't pretty. The war on drugs is going apace. In his recent Denver Post article Walter Cronkite correctly characterizes this war as an utter failure and also correctly notes that,
Much of the nation, in one way or another, is victimized by this failure - including, most notably, the innocents, whose exposure to drugs is greater than ever.
He then goes on to elaborate on the scope of the war, the sheer numbers of those affected,- 500,000 behind bars exclusively for drug offenses. The article is also an excellent summary of how unfair the system is, with, among other things, the lowest-level offenders often getting the toughest sentences as they do not have infromation they could trade for a reduced sentence. As for what is in the works to change this reality, according to Cronkite,
The Alliance [Drug Policy Alliance] and other organizations are working to reform and reframe the war on drugs. And they are finding many judges on their side, who are rebelling against this cruel system. We can expect no federal action during the congressional hiatus in activity ahead of the November elections, but it would be of considerable help if, across the country, campaigning politicians put this high on their promises of legislative action, much sooner than later.
I think this may not be going far enough. We should not reframe the war on drugs,- we should stop it. Those who have committ drug-related violent crime should be prosecuted,- with the war on drugs stopped, murder is still going to be murder, racketeering is still going to racketeering, and both will still remain crimes.

Boris Grebenshikov, one of Russia's leading rock musicians, wrote in one of his songs:
We have been fighting this war for 70 years,
They have taught us that life is combat,
But the new intelligence report just came in
And it turns out all this time we fought ourselves.

(Translated by me, on the fly)
Well, he said it. Let's just not allow the war on drug to decimate our society for 70 years,- the roughly 20 years we've been fighting it is more than enough. Time to stop the madness.

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