Over the years Michael Massing has done a highly effective job of reporting on America’s various drug war failures, but he now seems unable to face his own facts. While admitting that the drug war is a disaster on almost every front, he seems to be trying to tell us that we can still pull it out by giving it a kinder face–that if, somehow, we can make the penalties less draconian and get everybody into treatment, we can save the present system.
Unfortunately, the system Massing supports was doomed at its inception, and the fix he proposes is a Band-Aid. He leaves the cancer of prohibition intact, a policy that created the drug problem in the first place and has made it steadily worse. Today, even a casual glance at the prison stats reveals that, by accident or design, the drug war has turned into a race war.
Massing himself itemizes the advantages of ending drug prohibition–the violent global criminal networks would dry up, we could go back to building colleges instead of prisons, the Bill of Rights would actually mean something again–but these remarkable benefits are countered in his mind by the specter of addiction sweeping the land. He warns that if we call off the police dogs there could be an explosion of addicts. And while that might sound logical, our own history and the European experience suggests otherwise.
When alcohol prohibition in the United States crashed and burned in 1933, drug prohibition should have ended with it for the same reasons–the corruption, the gunplay, the judicial paralysis–but there simply were not and never have been enough drug users to form a political constituency. This is an essential fact the prohibitionists can’t seem to grasp: Hard drugs don’t have that much appeal and never did. Before 1914, both drugs and alcohol were legal, and almost nobody did drugs (three-tenths of 1 percent of the population). After 1919, both drugs and alcohol were illegal, and almost nobody did drugs.
In fact, drugs and alcohol had come to be considered déclassé by the wealthy, and their use across the board was in rapid decline–a testament to the success of the temperance movement. Then the moral leaders decided to make their victory absolute and call in the cops. What had been unfashionable suddenly became exotic: If you didn’t have a hip flask in 1920 you were a nobody. And even though there were probably fewer than 300,000 narcotics addicts in the whole country, we decided to root them out. Today, after an eighty-year, trillion-dollar jihad, the total number of addicts is up around 4 million. Instead of decreasing the rate of addiction, we gave it a fivefold boost.
While our repressive policies have been creating addicts, other countries have been abandoning our approach in favor of tolerance, and the results have been dramatic. Twenty years ago–about the time the United States started getting really serious about marijuana prohibition–the Dutch decided to go the other way. They made marijuana freely available to anyone over 16 (later it was raised to 18). Horrified American experts predicted that pot use in the Netherlands would skyrocket, but they were confounded. It is the American students who are now smoking significantly more pot than the Dutch. What’s more, our teenagers say marijuana is easier to get than beer. Why? Because beer distribution is controlled by the state–you have to be 18 and prove it. Marijuana distribution is controlled by some guy in a house across town who sells to your neighbor’s kid, no ID required.
There’s a similar contrast in the way our two countries have handled the heroin problem. Twenty years ago, the average age of a heroin user in the United States was 25. It was about the same in Holland. But while we dedicated ourselves to harassing heroin addicts in a national game of fox and hounds, the Dutch offered support, assistance, a place to shoot up and a chance to be left alone as long as you didn’t create a public nuisance. Today, the average age of a heroin user in Holland is 36–ten years older. Which means young people in the Netherlands are losing interest in the drug. But in the United States, where our zero-tolerance policies were supposed to have stamped out this scourge by 1995, the average age of a heroin user has dropped to 19. The most recent jump here is among eighth graders.
On the positive side, Massing rightly praises treatment, the one option that actually produces results, but he would limit his tolerance to methadone, a synthetic substitute for heroin. This treatment is guaranteed to miss that huge cohort of serious heroin users who commit most of the crime and on whom the black market depends. These people would rather go to prison than be forced into treatment. In prison they can get heroin.
The Swiss government recently conducted an experiment with 1,000 of these hard-core heroin addicts to see what would happen if doctors simply gave them the stuff along with some support services. Crime dropped by 60 percent, homelessness was eliminated, half the unemployed found jobs and a third of the welfare cases became self-supporting. But most important, by the end of the experiment eighty-three addicts had decided on their own to give up heroin in favor of abstinence. This is a better cure rate than most of our zero-tolerance programs have. It turns out that whether we give users the drugs with a box of needles or chain them up and force them into detox, somewhere between 5 and 10 percent a year will give them up.
As for marijuana, Massing acknowledges that it’s less harmful than alcohol; then he offers us another Band-Aid. Decriminalization–arresting the sellers but not the buyers–is exactly what we were doing during alcohol prohibition. You could drink all you wanted, you just couldn’t make it or buy it. That setup gave us Al Capone, the St. Valentine’s Day massacre and institutional corruption on a scale never imagined before then.
In the end, Massing’s argument rests on the widely held but flawed assumption that prohibition is holding down the number of drug users. “What would happen,” he asks, if heroin and crack suddenly were “sold openly”? One wonders where he’s been living. Right now anyone–any 14-year-old–who wants drugs can usually find them within minutes almost anywhere in the country. Because of the staggering profits driving distribution, illegal drugs have market penetration that rivals Coca-Cola. If you don’t believe it, ask the next cop you run into.
Legalization, a concept Massing seems to equate with crack vending machines in the lunchroom, is in fact the only way out of this nightmare. Legalization means regulation, not chaos. Chaos is what we’ve got now. Legalization means state control instead of mob control. It’s the only hope we have for getting the drug trade off the street and out of the hands of our children.