If people are to feel a sense of obligation to the law, then the law must correspond with what they consider to be right and just, or, at any rate, must not unduly diverge from it. In other words, it must correspond, as near as may be, with justice. —Sir Alfred Denning
In current discussions of the drug problem, the concept of justice rarely enters. Emphasis is placed, instead, upon the “protection of society” by resort to more severe penalties—that sovereign, popular remedy for the control of sin. On the federal level, two major steps in this direction have been taken since the war, in 1951 and in 1956. In the meantime, the states have been passing laws which match or exceed the rigor of the national laws. Only rarely has there been any effective opposition to this trend, although the Governor of New Jersey did recently veto a narcotics bill in that state, characterizing it as an example of a lynch law.
In earlier articles in The Nation (“Traffic in Dope,” April 21, 1956; “Dope: Congress Encourages the Traffic,’’ March 16, 1957), I commented upon the 1951 and 1956 legislation. In this article, I propose to show that current laws in this field, because they are unjust in principle, are inefficient in practice. They punish the wrong people, encourage the police to lawlessness, and give society the dangerous illusion that the drug scourge is being brought under control.
The inefficiency of our drug-control methods is concealed behind misleading statistics. Estimates of the extent of drug addiction are based almost entirely upon police activity. When arrest rates rise, as they have been doing for the last fifteen years, this is interpreted as evidence of increased police efficiency; declining arrest rates are usually taken as an indication that the problem is diminishing because of effective police work. In this numbers game, the true situation is anybody’s guess. The large volume of arrests creates the pleasant illusion in the public mind that the dope peddler is being severely dealt with, and bad statistics save the public the disillusionment of discovering that it is not so much the drug peddler as his victim who is suffering the punishment.
Most people would agree that the addict is a sick person needing treatment rather than punishment. Nevertheless, the great bulk of recent state and local legislation has been designed to make it easier to put more addicts behind bars for longer periods of time, and to give the police a free hand in dealing with them. Meanwhile, genuine treatment facilities continue to be virtually non-existent.
Even the popuIar current idea that drug users should be given rather than criminal commitment procedures gets twisted in practice. The establishments to which addicts are sent for “involuntary treatment” invariably become prisons, although they may be called “hospitals.” The Riverside Hospital in New York and the Public Health Service Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, are examples. In the meantime, thousands of addicts who annually give themselves up for "cure" on a voluntary basis are sent to jail for their “treatment."
The most important and basic inconsistency of present law is represented by the confllct between the federal courts’ doctrine that the addict is a diseased person and a proper subject of medical care, and the regulations issued by the Treasury Department which deny doctors the right to treat them, The physician who today acts according to the clear irnpllcations of the dactrine of the federal courts takes the risk of being prosecuted for violation of the narcotic laws. It is interesting to observe that this situation was brought about historically by administrative regulation, and not by legislative action, court decision or the pressures of public opinion.