Losing The War on Drugs

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As I've been working on an article on Metaphorical Thinking for our Global Change Seminar, I put down on paper these thoughts that I've been mulling over for a long time related to the never-ending "War on Drugs."



          In order to alleviate utter chaos and establish some modicum of control over its population, every culture, civilization or society must categorize human behavior so as to know how to respond to it. The key categories are:

          Each society structures itself around these categories and develops institutions, systems and laws designed to reward good behavior, punish bad behavior, cure sick behavior, educate stupid behavior, contain crazy behavior and condone or ignore neutral behavior.

          While good and neutral behaviors are rewarded or condoned, societies must and do develop institutions to address the other four categories and thereby prescribe how each will be responded to.

          Stupid behavior is responded to with an enormous educational system consisting of schools, pre-schools, colleges, universities, training academies, driver education schools, corporate training programs, teachers, teaching assistants, professors, trainers, publishing houses, school boards, state and federal departments of education and compulsory education acts and testing programs such as the No Child Left Behind! initiative.

          Sick behavior is met through health care systems with hospitals, clinics, medical labs, hospices, the American Medical Association, doctors, nurses, nurses aids, medical schools, insurance companies, pharmaceutical conglomerates, and innumerable prescriptive and non- prescription drugs. (Excepting of course for the 45 million Americans who have no health insurance.)

          Bad behavior is punished and to that end society adopts and utilizes a voluminous array of legislation, regulations, requirements, restrictions, ordinances, laws, police departments, attorneys, judges, probation and parole officers, courts, jails, prisons, reformatories and the entire criminal justice system to administer it all. Three strikes and you’re out.

          Crazy behavior is contained by the mental health system through such institutions as asylums, mental hospitals, hospitals for the criminally insane, mental health centers, and access to untold numbers of counseling services, therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and alcohol and drug addiction counselors. Prescription drugs have become the preferred response to depression, anxiety, hyperactivity, stress, hypertension, paranoia, neurosis, psychosis, schizophrenia, manic depression, post traumatic stress syndrome, PMS (premenstrual syndrome) and dementia. Over the past fifty years the primary means of controlling crazy behavior in mental hospitals has moved from straight jackets to prescription drugs. And we’ve now taken to prescribing amphetamines to millions of grade school students diagnosed as having ADD (attention deficit disorder) or ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder) because they are insufficiently quiet, and compliant in class. We have either evolved into a species whereby many millions of us are born defective and are in need of behavior-controlling drugs by elementary-school age or we’ve developed a culture which keeps untold millions of us on a sugar diet while we demand reserved, sedate, subservient passive behavior from children in school.

          The determination that society makes of which category a given behavior falls into dictates what resources will be made available to respond to that behavior, and thus prescribes how those resources will be used.

          As one example, our society has elected to categorize the use of illicit drugs as bad and the federal government has therefore declared a "War on Drugs." This has resulted in the incarceration of several hundred thousand citizens for non-violent crimes precipitating an extensive boom in the construction of prisons throughout the country, defoliation of coca growing farms in Columbia and Bolivia through coca-eradication programs know as zero coca, and a concerted attempt to close our borders. It has not, however, resulted in any marked reduction in illicit drug use.

          Here are some interesting statistics1:

          How have we employed these multi-billions of war on drugs tax dollars? What have we bought with our money? The Bureau of Judicial Statistic (BJS) tells us that we have spent 84% of it on enforcement, 1% on prevention and education, 4% on research, 6% on treatment and rehabilitation, and 5% on State funding.

          Meanwhile, we learn2 that a 10% reduction in expenditures on enforcement (about $1 billion) could result in 20% reduction in drug-related deaths (3 to 5 thousand) if that 10% was instead shifted to education and treatment.

          Our response to illicit drugs has clearly been essentially fear-driven and is thus focused on punishment rather than rehabilitation, education, cure or recovery. Had our response been hope-driven, as for example our response to illiteracy was, we would have categorized it differently and thereby expended our resources in a far more constructive and socially useful manner.

          Had we categorized that behavior as stupid the available resources would have been redirected so as to respond to the behavior through education rather than punishment. Instead of focusing on getting the bad guys and thereby reducing the supply of illicit drugs, we would have focused on educating people not to need or use drugs and towards finding other ways to satisfy their need for enhanced sensory stimulation. Envision major drug education programs in virtually every school from kindergarten through community colleges, graduate school and adult education classes. Picture extensive drug education programs on television and regularly portrayed in movies as part of the culture just as airports, courtrooms, schools and restaurants are now. Consider much of this being supported through taxing pharmaceutical conglomerates in much the same way public education is supported by property tax.

          Had we categorized illicit drug use as sick, the available resources would have been put into drug treatment programs in hospitals and clinics in much the same way as has been done with alcohol abuse programs, dry-out centers, the prescription of antabuse, and alcoholics anonymous programs. (A Rand Corp. study found that enforcement efforts cost 15 times as much as treatment to achieve the same reduction in societal costs.)

          (Parenthetically, it is noteworthy that as a culture we vacillate in how we categorize the use of alcohol. We can’t seem to decide whether to call it bad, sick, or stupid, and certainly the bizarre drinking binges that frequently accompany college breaks could be characterized as crazy behavior. Part of our ambivalence is that alcohol is our national drug of choice. In recent years we seem to have decided to address alcoholism more as a driving problem rather than an addiction or drug problem.)

          A central issue then is that how we as a culture categorize behaviors dictates how we employ our resources to respond to those behaviors. Our responses can themselves be classified as either fear-driven or hope-driven. The intent of fear-driven responses is to move us away from what we don’t want because it is bad or fearful. The intent of hope-driven responses is to move us toward what do want because it is good or desirable. Responding from a fear-driven stance usually leads to punitive uses of our resources and responding from a hope-driven stance leads to compassionate and socially constructive uses of them. In this regard, societies function in much the same way as individuals: when we feel safe and secure we engage our cerebral cortex to rationally move us toward what we want and hope for;  when we feel terrified and insecure we engage our reptilian brain to move us away from and protect us from what we don’t want and fear. Fear-driven responses are essentially exclusive while hope-driven responses are essentially inclusive .

          In closing, consider a statement made by New Mexico’s Governor Gary E. Johnson, in July of 2001.

“After 20-plus years of zero-tolerance policies and increasingly harsh criminal penalties, we have over half a million people behind bars on drug charges nationwide - more than the total prison population in all of Western Europe. We're spending billions of dollars to keep them locked up. Yet the federal government's own research demonstrates that drugs are cheaper, purer, and more readily available than when this war started.

We need to reform our drug policies. The goal should be to help those addicted to drugs to find a better way. The answer is not imprisonment and legal attack. The answer lies in sentencing reform, in supplying treatment on demand, and in delivering honest drug education to our kids.

We need policies that reflect what we know about drug addiction rather than policies that seek to punish it. The days of a drug war waged against our people should come to an end. If we take a new approach -- one that deals with drugs through a medical model rather than a criminal justice model -- I guarantee that prison rates will drop, violent crime will decrease, property crime will decrease, overdose deaths will decrease, AIDS and hepatitis C will decrease, and more of those needing treatment for drug abuse will receive it.”

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1Statistics are taken from the Bureau of Judicial Statistics Reports
2 Journal of Drug Issues, Vol #34, Fall 2004: pp 781-782

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January 7, 2006
by Bill Dillon