Columns 2008

Drug Wars

“Insofar as the government has information not generally available about the merits or demerits of the items we ingest or the activities we engage in, let it give us the information. But let it leave us free to choose what chances we want to take with our own lives.” Milton Friedman, Free To Choose.

Yes, this comes from that Milton Friendman, the conservative economist. I found out about his views on our drug war while listening to a speaker from LEAP – Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. I was invited because I’ve written previous columns questioning the sanity of the drug war; a war that is over thirty years old, has cost billions of dollars and has been, by the kindest of estimates, a total failure. Drugs are still available to anyone wanting them. Prices are reasonable. And now even elementary school students have access to them.

My problem with the war on drugs, aside from its cost and abject failure, is that for so long as the drug policy in this country is not debatable in any civilized, reasonable fashion, for so long will we continue down an unending path that destroys more than just the people and ecosystems of places like Columbia and Afghanistan.  Or did you think those poisons we spray from planes on opium and pot plants somehow know to only touch the plants and not the people, animals and watersheds that surround the fields?

Every dollar we spend putting a drug user in jail, or declaring drug use a criminal problem instead of a medical one, or hiring more probation officers, narcotics cops and corrections officials, is money that could have been spent healing instead of punishing.

I can already hear people screaming about how I’m soft on drugs and druggies. Well here’s reality. Given a chance I’d take all children away from every family that abuses any substance, be it alcohol or drugs, and adopt them into homes with the patience, love and coherence to raise them. But since society still refuses to make me queen, that’s not likely to happen. So I’m stuck with the fact that parents who abuse substances are going to continue to have children and those children are going to continue to need aid and intervention if they are to have any chance at a decent life. And those parents are going to continue to avoid treatment because they not only don’t want to sober up, but also because using drugs is a crime and they don’t want to go to jail. So even if they decide one day that sobriety might be a fun way to raise their kids, they aren’t as likely to seek help.

Spending money on building more jails simply means that we will continue to incarcerate our citizens at rates unheard of in most supposedly civilized nations. We actually lead some of the more repressive regimes in the world today in the percentage of our citizens in jail.  Yet drugs are still easily available in our cities and towns, whether in Anchorage or in the smallest bush village.  Families are torn apart because of substance abuse, yet we have little to no money for treatment but plenty for prisons.

There are a lot of people in jail today who chose to use drugs, used them, got caught, and are now living off our tax dollars for no other reason than that. They did not involve kids or family, weren’t violent, didn’t break any law except using the drug. Funding their room and board while I search for money and programs to help parents try to regain their children is simply ludicrous.

Our war on drugs has failed. For every pound of pot seized, twenty times more makes it to the streets. Every time we vote to build more jails and spray more fields with poison rather than accepting this failure, we delay real progress in dealing with addictions.

Most people don’t sober up the first time they’re treated. Most smokers don’t quit the first time they try.  That’s the nature of addiction.  Treating one as a medical condition and the other as a crime simply makes no sense.

It’s time to take our heads out of the sand, drop the puritanical pretense, and face this problem head on. Addicts need treatment, not jail.