Sunday, May 15, 2011

If We Cared About Narcotics Trafficking

This is a response to Mark Osler's interesting new take on the drug war. He suggests that if we really want to cripple the drug industry we should stop attacking its labor source, which is limitless, and instead focus on depriving it of capital.

I agree that we need to bring our drug policy into line with the best of our core values, but I don’t think this is the way to do it. There are other, darker values at work here, and I think we eventually will have to revisit our most basic assumptions about drug use and see those values for what they are. Many people are rightly concerned about the disproportionate effect that mass incarceration has on minority communities. We shouldn’t mistake this for some unfortunate by-product of drug criminalization, however. Instead we should recognize it as one of the policy’s raisons d'être. In that light, targeting cheap labor makes a lot more sense. The Harrison Narcotics Act originated in the belief that marijuana would cause black men to "step on a white man's shadow" or to "look at a white woman twice." Opium laws were a response to the flood of Chinese immigrants who were seen to threaten American jobs. Harassing labor, minorities, and the poor was always the real point, anyway. Mainstream America’s alarmist notions about the drugs themselves followed from our fear of minorities and, especially since the 60s, our fear of political dissidents.

Likewise, the benefits reaped by Third World dictators are not entirely contrary to our policy goals. Those who benefit may be in the “friendly” class of thugs because they oppose communism or terrorism or because they otherwise cooperate with our business interests. In those cases, turning a blind eye to the drug trade is a good way to prop up our friends without officially including them in the budget. It’s only the “unfriendly” ones that we want to target seriously, so in that sense the drug war is a policy tool more than a law enforcement agenda. Osler's proposed solution is especially complicated by the fact that, as in the case of Manuel Noriega, the good guys and the bad guys may be the same people at different times. The question which is which depends on other factors that often have nothing to do with drugs, public health, or any domestic issue at all.

To make matters worse, even the legitimate economy depends to some extent on the drug trade. There’s evidence that drug money may have saved the international banking system from failure in 2008 by providing crucial liquidity during the financial crisis. This is hardly surprising; an industry so big can’t exist in a vacuum. As long as all that money is working to support the economy, it’s at least serving some productive purpose. The consequences of diverting it directly to law enforcement would be unpredictable at best, and more than a little frightening. I don’t relish the idea of a federal police force with an extra $100 billion a year on its hands casting about for something to do in order to justify its existence.

While it is true that drug abuse undermines families and productivity, the same can be said of alcohol abuse. We learned that prohibition undermines them more, and we should take the same lesson here. The law may define anyone who self-medicates with a controlled substance as an abuser, but we should be careful not to confuse the law with the facts. Clinically speaking, narcotics are no more pernicious than alcohol. They’re actually less addictive and less damaging physiologically. If you ask most people which drug is so addictive that withdrawal can kill you, most will say it’s heroin. The correct answer is not heroin, but alcohol. Facts like these need to become part of the public’s perspective in this debate.

As for productivity, I question the assumption that we should use the criminal law to maximize it. It strikes me as a direly Puritanical idea. But assuming we should, the truth is that narcotics are not necessarily incompatible with productivity. Look at Freud, for example. One can agree or disagree with his ideas, but a quick glance at his collected works on the library shelf is enough to show that he at least had a lot of them. As heretical as it sounds, productive drug users are the norm rather than the exception. The basket cases typically encountered by lawyers and doctors in the course of their work aren’t representative. In fact, they’re part of a group that’s self-selected for pathology.

My solution? If we really want to help the communities that are most damaged by drug activity, we should simply acknowledge that there’s a market for narcotics and bring that market into the open. Our inability to do this depends, I think, on the retributive instinct that Osler talks about. I’ll offer an analogy that I've found instructive. Opiates, as we know, are a family of prescription drugs related to heroin. They include codeine and morphine, and they’re among the oldest and safest painkillers known to humans. They also have the drawback of lending themselves to addiction, which we all know leads to disaster. Generally speaking, though, even ongoing use of opiates doesn’t kill people or create serious health issues. Drug manufacturers have solved this problem by adding Tylenol to most prescription opiates. Tylenol’s effectiveness as a painkiller is negligible compared to that of codeine, but unlike codeine it is highly toxic to the liver and will kill you fairly quickly if you overuse it. This is what’s known as a strategy for “preventing addiction.”

Our whole drug policy is a version of the same strategy. Our prejudices (against people and ideas, not just substances) have told us that drugs would destroy us as a society. Rather than giving up our prejudices, we’ve found a way to make it so.

1 comment:

  1. Someone in my partner's family has been a victim of the Tylenol + opiate problem. He became addicted to prescription pain killers after he was prescribed them for chronic back pain, but began overmedicating, which led to a seizure when his liver shut down, followed immediately by a heart attack. Your perspective is one I plan to share with the family asap!