Getting Off Drugs: The Legalization Option

By Walter Wink

The Quaker commitment to nonviolence has direct implications for the United States' failed drug war. It is a spiritual law that we become what we hate. Jesus articulated this law in the Sermon on the Mount when he admonished, "Do not react violently to the one who is evil" (Scholars' Version). The sense is clear: do not resist evil by violent means; do not let evil set the terms of your response. Applied to the drug issue, this means, "Do not resist drugs by violent methods."

When we oppose evil with the same weapons that evil employs, we commit the same atrocities, violate the same civil liberties, and break the same laws as those whom we oppose. We become what we hate. Evil makes us over into its double. If one side prevails, the evil continues by virtue of having been established through the means used. This principle of mimetic opposition is abundantly illustrated in the case of the disastrous U.S. drug war.

The drug war is over, and we lost. We merely repeated the mistake of Prohibition. The harder we tried to stamp out this evil, the more lucrative we made it, and the more it spread. Our forcible resistance to evil simply augments it. An evil cannot be eradicated by making it more profitable.

We lost that war on all three fronts: destroying the drug sources, intercepting drugs at our borders, and arresting drug dealers and users.

In the first place, we have failed to cut off drug sources. When we paid Turkey to stop the growth of opium, production merely shifted to Southeast Asia and Afghanistan. Crop substitution programs in Peru led to increased planting of coca, as farmers simply planted a small parcel of land with one of the accepted substitute crops and used the bulk of the funds to plant more coca. Cocaine cultivation uses only 700 of the 2.5 million square miles suitable for its growth in South America. There is simply no way the United States can police so vast an area.

Second, the drug war has failed to stop illicit drugs at our borders. According to a Government Accounting Office study, the air force spent $3.3 million on drug interdiction, using sophisticated AWACS surveillance planes, over a 15-month period ending in 1987. The grand total of drug seizures from that effort was eight. During the same period, the combined efforts of the coast guard and navy, sailing for 2,512 ship days at a cost of $40 million, resulted in the seizure of a mere 20 drug-carrying vessels. Hard drugs are so easy to smuggle because they are so concentrated. Our entire country's current annual import of cocaine would fit into a single C-5A cargo plane.

As if the flood of imported drugs were not enough, domestic production of marijuana continues to increase. It is the largest cash crop in ten states, and the second largest cash crop in the nation, next only to corn. Methamphetamine, at two to three times the cost of crack, sustains a high for 24 hours as opposed to crack's 20 minutes. It can be manufactured in clandestine laboratories anywhere for an initial cost of only $2,000. Even if we sealed our borders we could not stop the making of new drugs.

Third, the drug war calls for arresting drug dealers and users in the United States. There are already 750,000 drug arrests per year, and the current prison population has far outstripped existing facilities. Drug offenders account for more than 60 percent of the prison population; to make room for them, far more dangerous criminals are being returned to the streets. It is not drugs but the drug laws themselves that have created this monster. The unimaginable wealth involved leads to the corruption of police, judges, and elected officials. A huge bureaucracy has grown dependent on the drug war for employment. Even the financial community is compromised, since the only thing preventing default by some of the heavily indebted Latin American nations or major money-laundering banks is the drug trade. Cocaine brings Bolivia's economy about $600 million per year, a figure equal to the country's total legal export income. Revenues from drug trafficking in Miami, Fla., are greater than those from tourism, exports, health care, and all other legitimate businesses combined.

Drug laws have also fostered drug-related murders and an estimated 40 percent of all property crime in the United States. The greatest beneficiaries of the drug laws are drug traffickers, who benefit from the inflated prices that the drug war creates. Rather than collecting taxes on the sale of drugs, governments at all levels expend billions in what amounts to a subsidy of organized criminals. Such are the ironies of violent resistance to evil.

The war on drugs creates other casualties beyond those arrested. There are the ones killed in fights over turf; innocents caught in crossfire; citizens terrified of city streets; escalating robberies; children given free crack to get them addicted and then enlisted as runners and dealers; mothers so crazed for a fix that they abandon their babies, prostitute themselves and their daughters, and addict their unborn. Much of that, too, is the result of the drug laws. Dealing is so lucrative only because it is illegal.

The media usually portray cocaine and crack use as a black ghetto phenomenon. This is a racist caricature. There are more drug addicts among middle- and upper-class whites than any other segment of the population, and far more such occasional drug users. The typical customer is a single, white male 20-40 years old. Only 13 percent of those using illegal drugs are African American, but they constitute 35 percent of those arrested for simple possession and a staggering 74 percent of those sentenced for drug possession. It is the demand by white users that makes drugs flow. Americans consume 60 percent of the world's illegal drugs. That is simply too profitable a market to refuse.

Increasing the budget for fighting drugs is scarcely the answer. As Francis Hall, former head of the New York City Police Departmentšs narcotics division, put it, "It's like Westmoreland asking Washington for two more divisions. We lost the Vietnam War with a half-million men. Wešre doing the same thing with drugs." The drug war is the United States' longest war, our domestic Vietnam.

We are the addicts

This nation is addicted to the use of force, and its armed resistance to the drug trade is doomed to fail precisely because the drug trade perfectly mirrors our own values. We condemn drug traffickers for sacrificing their children, their integrity, and their human dignity just to make money or experience pleasure--without recognizing that these are the values espoused by the society at large. In the drug war, we are scapegoating addicts and blacks for what we have become as a nation. Drugs are the ultimate consumer product for people who want to feel good now without benefit of hard work, social interaction, or making a productive contribution to society. Drug dealers are living out the rags-to-riches American dream as private entrepreneurs desperately trying to become upwardly mobile. That is why we could not win the war on drugs. We are the enemy, and we cannot face that fact. So we launched a half-hearted, half-baked war against a menace that only mirrors ourselves.

The uproar about drugs is itself odd. Illicit drugs are, on the whole, far less dangerous than the legal drugs that many more people consume.

Alcohol is associated with 40 percent of all suicide attempts, 40 percent of all traffic deaths, 54 percent of all violent crimes, and 10 percent of all work-related injuries. Nicotine, the most addictive drug of all, has transformed lung cancer from a medical curiosity to a common disease that now accounts for 3 million deaths a year worldwide, 60 million since the 1950s. Smoking will kill one in three smokers eventually.

None of the illegal drugs is as lethal as tobacco or alcohol. If anyone has ever died as a direct result of marijuana, no one seems to be able to document it. Most deaths from hard drugs are the result of adulteration or unregulated concentrations. Many people can be addicted to heroin for most of their lives without serious health consequences. It has no known side effects other than constipation. Cocaine in powder form is not as addictive as nicotine; only 3 percent of those who try it become addicted. Most cocaine users do not become dependent, and most who do eventually free themselves. Crack is terribly addictive, but its use is a direct consequence of the expense of powdered cocaine, and its spread is in part a function of its lower price.

We must be honest about these facts, because much of the hysteria about illegal drugs has been based on misinformation. All addiction is a serious matter, and Quakers are right to be most concerned about the human costs. But many of these costs are a consequence of a wrong-headed approach to eradication. Our tolerance of the real killer-drugs (nicotine and alcohol) and our abhorrence of the drugs that are far less lethal is hypocritical, or at best a selective moralism reflecting passing fashions of indignation.

Drug addiction is singled out as evil, yet ours is a society of addicts. We project on the black drug subculture all our profound anxieties about our own addictions (to wealth, power, sex, food, work, religion, alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco) and attack addiction in others without having to gain insight about ourselves. New York City councilman Wendell Foster illustrated this scapegoating attitude when he suggested chaining addicts to trees so people could spit on them. Instead of nurturing compassion in order to help addicts, our society targets them as pariahs and dumps on them our own shadow side.

Legalization: not capitulation but a better strategy

I'm not advocating giving up the war on drugs because we can't win. I'm saying that we lost because we let drugs dictate the means we used to oppose them. We have to break out of the spiral of mimetic violence. The only way to do so is to ruin the world market price of drugs by legalizing them. We have to repeal this failed Second Prohibition. The moment the price of drugs plummets, drug profits will collapse--and with them, the drug empires.

I am not advocating no laws at all regulating drugs, no governmental restraints on sales to minors, no quality controls to curtail overdose, and no prosecution of the inevitable bootleggers. Legalization, by contrast, means that the government would maintain regulatory control over drug sales, possibly through state clinics or stores. It would be the task of the Food and Drug Administration to guarantee purity and safety, as it does for alcoholic beverages. Shooting up would be outlawed in public, just as drinking liquor is. Advertising would be strictly prohibited, selling drugs to children would continue to be a criminal offense, and other evasions of government regulations would be prosecuted. Driving, flying, or piloting a vessel under the influence would still be punished. Taxes on drugs would pay for enforcement, education, rehabilitation, and research (a net benefit is estimated of at least $10 billion from reduced expenditures on enforcement and new tax revenues).

Legalization would lead to an immediate decrease in murders, burglaries, and robberies, paralleling the end of alcohol prohibition in 1933--though the spread of powerful weapons in U.S. society and the proliferation of youth gangs has led to an addiction to gun violence that will not soon go away. Cheap drugs would mean that most addicts would not be driven to crime to support their habit, and that drug lords would no longer have a turf to fight over. Legalization would force South American peasants to switch back to less lucrative crops; but that would be less devastating than destruction of their crops altogether by aerial spraying or biological warfare. Legalization would enable countries like Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru to regularize the cocaine sector and absorb its money-making capacity into the taxable, legal, unionized economic world. Legalization would be a blow to dealers, who would be deprived of their ticket to riches. It would remove glamorous Al Capone-type traffickers who are role-models for the young, and it would destroy the "cool" status of drug use. But it would leave us with a monolithic problem: how to provide decent jobs for unemployed youths. Indeed, until the root economic factors that contribute to drug use are addressed, drug addiction will continue.

Drug legalization would cancel the corrupting role of the drug cartels in South American politics, a powerful incentive to corruption at all levels of our own government, and a dangerous threat to our civil liberties through mistaken enforcement and property confiscation. It would free law enforcement agencies to focus on other crimes and reduce the strain on the court and prison systems. It would scuttle a multibillion dollar bureaucracy whose prosperity depends on not solving the drug problem. It would remove a major cause of public cynicism about obeying the laws of the land. It could help check the spread of aids and hepatitis through a free supply of hypodermic needles.

Legalization would also free up money wasted on interdiction of illicit drugs that is desperately needed for treatment, education, and research.

Legalization: the risks

The worst prospect is that legalization might lead to a short-term increase in the use of drugs due to easier availability, lower prices, and the sudden freedom from prosecution. The repeal of Prohibition seems to have had that result, then alcohol use gradually declined. Drugs cheap enough to destroy their profitability would also be in the range of any schoolchild's allowance, just like beer and cigarettes. Cocaine is easily concealable and its effects less overt than alcohol. The possibility of increased teenage use is admittedly frightening.

On the other hand, ending the drug war would free drug control officers to concentrate on protecting children from exploitation, and here stiff penalties would continue to be in effect. The alarmist prediction that cheap, available drugs could lead to an addiction rate of 75 percent of regular users simply ignores the fact that 95 percent of people in the United States are already using some form of drugs when nicotine, caffeine, alcohol, and prescription drugs are included. We can learn from the mistakes made with the repeal of Prohibition, when the lid was simply removed with virtually no education or restriction on advertising and little government regulation. A major educational program would need to be in effect well before drug legalization took effect. Anti-alcohol and anti-tobacco ad campaigns have already proven effective in restricting use. In Canada, for example, cigarettes sell for about three times the U.S. price, and vigorous campaigns against smoking have had some success, especially among the young.

We already have some evidence that legalization works. In the 11 U.S. states that briefly "decriminalized" marijuana in the 1970s, the number of users stayed about the same. In the Netherlands, legal tolerance of marijuana and hashish has led to a significant decline in consumption and has successfully prevented kids from experimenting with hard drugs. Eleven times as many U.S. high school seniors smoked pot daily in 1983 as did students the same age in the Netherlands. The Dutch discovered that making the purchase of small amounts of marijuana freely available to anyone over 16 cuts the drug dealer out; as a result, there is virtually no crime associated with the use of marijuana. Treatment for addiction to hard drugs is widely available there; 75 percent of the heroin addicts in Amsterdam are on methadone maintenance, living relatively normal, crime-free lives. Since the needle exchange program was first introduced almost ten years ago, the HIV infection rate among injecting drug users in cities like Amsterdam has dropped from 11 percent to 4 percent and is now one of the lowest in the world. All this still falls short of legalization, and problems still abound, but the experience of the Netherlands clearly points in the right direction. The Dutch see illicit drug use as a health problem, not as a criminal problem.

Fighting the drug war may appear to hold the high moral ground, but this is only an illusion; in fact it increases the damage drugs do to the whole society by making it so lucrative. Some have argued that legalization would legitimate or place the state's moral imprimatur on drugs, but we have already legalized the most lethal drugs, and no one argues that this constitutes governmental endorsement. Sale of Valium, alcohol, cigarettes, pesticides, and poisons are all permitted and regulated by the state, without anyone assuming that the state encourages their use. Legalization would indeed imply that drugs are no longer being satanized, like "demon rum."

Some people argue that legalization represents a daring and risky experiment, but it is prohibition that is the daring and risky experiment, argues drug researcher Jonathan Ott. Inebriating drugs have been mostly legal throughout the millennia of human existence. The drastic step was taken in the second decade of this century in the United States when for the first time large-scale, comprehensive legal control of inebriating drugs was implemented. It is safe to say as we approach the end of the eighth decade of federal control of inebriating drugs that the experiment has been a dismal and costly failure. Human and animal use of inebriants is as natural as any other aspect of social behavior; it is the attempt to crush this normal drive that is bizarre and unnatural. Already 95 percent of our adult population is using drugs, and the vast majority do so responsibly. Most people who would misuse drugs are already doing so. Public attitudes have swung against drunkenness and driving while intoxicated; now anti-smoking sentiments are burgeoning. We have every reason to believe that the public will continue to censure addiction to drugs.

No one wants to live in a country overrun with drugs, but we already do. We should at the very least commit ourselves to a policy of "harm reduction." We cannot stop drug violence with state violence. Addicts will be healed by care and compassion, not condemnation. Dealers will be curbed by a ruined world drug market, not by enforcement that simply escalates the profitability of drugs. A nonviolent, nonreactive, creative approach is needed that lets the drug empire collapse of its own deadly weight.

We have been letting our violent resistance to drugs beget the very thing we seek to destroy. When our nonviolent Quaker tradition offers an alternative to our failed drug war, shouldn't we consider trying it?

U.S. Drug Use (among the 200 million people over age 12)

caffeine: 178 million or 89%
alcohol: 106 million or 53%
nicotine: 57 million or 28%
marijuana: 12 million or 6%
cocaine: 3 million or 1.5%
heroin: 2 million or 1%

U.S. Drug Deaths (per year)

nicotine: 320,000 to 500,000
alcohol: 100,000 to 200,000
illicit drugs: 6,000 to 30,000

Walter Wink is Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City. He attends South Berkshire (Mass.) Meeting.

copyright 1996 Friends Publishing Corporation

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