Drugs are bad. You’ve been hearing it since that retired D.A.R.E officer strolled into your health class in middle school to scare the crap out of you about getting hooked on cigarettes, alcohol, and meth—but mostly because somewhere in those lessons there was the promise of jail time.
The interesting thing about criminalization is that you don’t have to explain it very much. The only real criterion necessary for making something illegal is that it’s “bad”. And then, naturally, the association goes that “bad things” are done by “bad people”. Superficially, there’s not much left to debate. We don’t ask too many questions about the bad things, as long as those bad things are taken away and kept from the rest of us “good” people.
But what strikes me in particular about the criminalization of drug usage is the indifference it spawns towards drug addiction and the people affected. Mostly we think of criminalization as a protection for society against the things that will inevitably destroy it. The other function it serves is dramatically shortening the conversation. Criminalization is a really easy way to keep compassion and resources away from an issue. If drugs are bad and the people who sell and use drugs are bad, then there’s nothing left to talk about. Don’t talk about the pain and loss associated with addiction. Don’t talk about the challenges of economic and racial marginalization. Don’t talk about the systematic defunding of invaluable community support and public education. Don’t talk about the dealers or the house. Don’t talk about the deck stacked against the players. They got their hand; it’s their problem.
When you understand the implications of the failed “war on drugs”, there is a more alarming message about the custodians of society than about the targets of criminalization. Policy and the motives by which we govern should be examined and reevaluated, as new research suggests that drugs aren’t the problem—environment may be the biggest factor. In a recent publication entitled “Chasing The Scream”, author, Johann Hari, discusses the origins of the war on drugs and why drug addiction isn’t what we think it is. What he uncovers over his three years of international research is an understanding about drug addiction that completely discredits current perceptions and policies.
So then, if drug usage is related to our environment—one constructed of ill-guided policy and out-dated biases—what does that say about the intransigence of the established bodies charged with the upkeep of society? Why do we continue to imprison drug users and dealers alike with no further inquiry? Here’s my take:
If you legalize drugs, then you actually have to deal with where drug addiction comes from, like bad education and healthcare policy, discrimination and classism, and poor leadership. As long as drug users are criminalized, you don’t have to deal with any of that. You can just lock people up in prison. And that’s precisely what we currently do here in the U.S.
Take a look at Portugal. About 12 years ago, something like 1% of the entire Portuguese population was addicted to heroine. Convinced that current criminalization policies were no longer effective, the government established a panel of physicians who were charged with coming up with a solution. The governing bodies that appointed the physician panel agreed—in advance—to do whatever the doctors suggested. A few years later, the physician panel came back and ordered the decriminalization of heroine, and that all the money previously spent to criminalize users be used on treatment and the subsidizing of jobs. Heroine addiction plummeted by 50%.
The bigger—and perhaps more disturbing—question that needs to be asked is:
If we have examples of other, more successful means of dealing with drug usage, why AREN’T we doing that?
What reason could there be for continuing business as usual?