The “War on Drugs” consumes people and money. Blacks and whites use drugs at about the same rate, yet 10 times as many African Americans are in prison for drug offenses.

The human cost
Jose Guerena joined the Marines in 2002, and served two tours in Iraq. In May, 2011, in Tucson, AZ, Jose had just worked an overnight shift and was sleeping when his wife, Vanessa, heard noises outside their house and saw a man through the window. Jose told Vanessa to hide in the closet with their four-year-old son and left the room. Jose Guerena was shot at least 60 times as a SWAT team burst into his house. Vanessa called 911, but the SWAT team prevented the paramedics from reaching Jose who died.

In Utah in September, 2010, the Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force fatally shot Todd Blair three times in the head and chest during a raid. The video shows an officer crashing through the door and shooting Todd without warning. Todd wasn't even the person they sought in the warrant.

How many more people have been murdered in the "War on Drugs?"

Three facts dictate that we can never win a war on drugs. These are facts — not feelings or opinions. Drugs tend to trigger hysteria rather than calm and reasonable thinking; please think about these facts.

Addiction
First fact: many users become addicted to drugs. They feel physical/psychological demands for drugs. How do people respond? Denial of being addicted. Mark Twain said it is easy to quit smoking; he’d done it a thousand times. Ask recovering alcoholics to talk about the facets of their denial.

Most people who are addicts crave their drugs until they receive intervention, such as twelve-step programs or medical-psychosocial programs. Most of these approaches depend on the addict admitting their lives are out of control and they want to quit (they stop denial) and a "moral inventory" probes for personal causes.

Most addicts crave drugs — they need them frequently.

Supply and demand
The second fact is the law of supply and demand. Because "customers" are addicted, they continually demand. The cost will rise when the supply is limited or risky — due to the war on drugs! People who are addicted require their drugs frequently; they must be satisfied at any cost. Therefore, addicts often resort to criminal activities to get the money to supply their craving. Supply-and-demand motivates some to develop new drugs to try to hook people, creating more demand.

Purity and strength
Purity and safety is the third fact. Alcohol and nicotine are manufactured under controls, so users know it is pure and they know the strength labeled on alcohol. Illegal drugs have neither, which causes many medical problems. Users pass out, go into coma, catch diseases, and die because the drugs are of unknown strength created or diluted in labs that seldom are sterile, using needles that are contaminated.

So drugs

There is a far better way that requires a paradigm shift from criminal to medical.

Paradigm shift
Since the demand comes from people who are psychologically or medically hooked, change the way we supply the demand. Actually, countless people who were hooked continue to be productive workers and tax payers while their addictive needs are covertly met. The cost per dose is tiny.

Consider the true experience of Dr. William Stewart Halstead (1852–1922). He started the practice of medicine in New York in the 1870s and was soon one of the most promising surgeons. He researched and found that cocaine injected near a nerve was a local anesthesia, which was a major contribution to surgery. But he had tested this on himself first, and became addicted. His medical work suffered, and learning of his addiction, a fellow physician, William Henry Welch, hired a schooner with trusted sailors to sail at sea for months away from cocaine to break the addiction. His skill as a surgeon returned. Dr Welch invited Dr. Halstead to join the doctors forming John Hopkins in a minor appointment. However he was such a brilliant surgeon, Halstead became one of the “big four” of John Hopkins Hospital. One of the four, Dr. Osler, knew that his addiction continued though he switched to morphine. Dr. Osler wrote later that Halstead was able to reduce his daily dose to less than three grains, on which “he could do his work comfortably and maintain his excellent physical vigor.”

War on drugs can never be won

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There are other similar examples, but secret because it is illegal to maintain an addict safely. In England for about fifty years physicians gave addicts the dose they needed. Later this evolved into clinics with careful oversight. Often social workers or others were available to help any addicts who wanted to try to break their addiction. Meanwhile most addicts continued working and supporting themselves. A similar program operated in the United States until the Harrison narcotic law of 1914 defined addiction not as a medical problem but a criminal one. Today some addicted people are maintained with the proper dosage of safe drugs at great risk by physician or pharmacist friends as was Dr. Halstead.

For more information and history read Licit and Illicit Drugs by Edward M. Breacher and the editors of Consumer Reports.

If we treated addiction as a psychosocial-medical problem, people maintained in prison at great expense and those on the streets using illegal drugs could receive the dosage necessary for their addiction of safe, appropriate drugs at actual cost, and offered treatment. Meanwhile they could be working and supporting themselves. In our ghettos today dealing drugs is the way to make the most money, and is how many families are supported. What is the cost to us of this underground economy and the high cost per addict and prisoner?

Treatment is the ultimate goal in facing drug addiction and denial. Alcoholics Anonymous and other psychosocial and medical treatments continue to lead to sobriety and recovery for hundreds of thousands. The benefits are far greater than the cost.

When will our legislators recognize the economy in treatment of addiction?

If it is a fact that addicts are addicted, then the law of supply and demand inevitably produces the illegal drug trade with all its results, including impure drugs, unless we treat addicts as addicts. Consider that we treat diabetics and people with many other illnesses by maintenance dosages of what they need for productive and healthy lives, with pure drugs of known strength and proper dosage.

Two final unknowns; once drugs are no longer underground, but open and honestly understood, will the attraction of drugs fade and the number of people newly addicted drop? And if drugs were available from physicians or clinics, with controls, how much criminal activity would stop, since the cost would be much lower than present street costs and most addicts would be working?

So, can a war on drugs ever be won? Or can we treat addicts as people with medical and psychosocial problems?

Violence
Does the violence of today's drug war have the same root cause as Al Capone and other thugs of prohibition in the 1920's, which we repealed. Are today's impure street drugs like the bathtub gin of prohibition? Is the war on drugs really a war on people with a problem?

One more thought. Our prisons are filled with minority and poor people, mostly male, convicted of possession. What are the costs of treatment for these as addicts rather than as prisoners? Decades ago The Dallas Morning News studied every one tried for murder in Texas over a period of years. They found that the more income an accused murderer had, the higher the chance of not being convicted, and if convicted the lower the sentence, and none sentenced to execution. Since drugs are widely used by higher income people, is income the reason so few are in prison compared to minorities?

Read President Jimmy Carter's opinion piece in a recent New York Times.

If you agree, print this to mail to your Representatives state and national.

Copyright © 2004, 2009 John F. Yeaman