War on Drugs is an abject failure

Posted 22 July 2014 at 12:00 am


A daily, quick scan of the news media outlets, including this one, in and around Orleans County leaves at least some readers, i.e. me, in a state of angered bewilderment.

Trumpeted as heroes for “cleaning up the streets,” local law enforcement and the Orleans County judicial circuit pride themselves on the number of arrests and prosecutions for criminal possession of this substance or that in the 3rd, 1st, 2nd, 5th, and 4th degrees.

Hardly a day passes when there isn’t a headline story about another vanquished “drug thug.” Orleans County Judge James Punch lays down a heavy gavel on the throngs of troubled abusers that file through his Courtroom. Going so far as to even call the addicts’ lifestyles the “scourge of our community,” and he frequently raises bail on drug “offenders.” Apparently, mercy and empathy are virtually non-existent under the storied, porticoed dome.

Juxtaposed to this perception of the problem, is reality. Federal and State governments, along with the Courts, like Judge Punch’s, must surrender to the fact that the “War on Drugs” has been an abject failure and wasteful exercise in futility.

As evidence of this, every year, Americans alone snort, inject, inhale, or ingest nearly four hundred billion dollars, (yes, you read that correctly, $400,000,000,000) in illicit, recreational substances. The United States is by far the number one consumer per capita of both illegal and prescription drugs in the world. Taken by itself, the illegal drug market is the fourth or fifth (depending on one’s source) largest financial market in the country, after energy, health care, and financial services/banking.

World-renown addiction expert, Dr. Charles O’Brien, an Endowed Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), has been performing research on the harm inflicted and likelihood of dependence from the use of substances for decades. His findings? Irrefutably, marijuana is more safe, less addictive, and less destructive than either alcohol or cigarettes even when adjusted on a per capita basis.

Dr. O’Brien has directed the Center for the Study and Treatment of Addiction at UPenn for over 30 years, and in that time he has written well over 600 published academic papers and books on the psychological, physiological, and sociological effects of illicit substances and their illegality. His conclusions are undisputed in the academic and scientific community, substance abuse & dependence is a public health issue, not indicative of dereliction, deficiency, or criminality.

Furthermore, his research demonstrates that criminalization and mandatory minimum sentencing have only served as a blatant, institutionalized mechanism for disenfranchisement, social ostracization, and dehumanization of the most vulnerable minority groups in our society. Normative pressures have relegated those most in need of help to the recesses of 8 by 10 cells in this repugnant “off the street/out of sight, out of mind” mantra. So this begs the question, why does the United States take such a non-empathetic, hard-line toward individuals who are in need of support and help?

I believe the answer to that question is unbridled, hypocritical, and superficial Puritanism. It is this completely unsubstantiated belief that “they” (drug abusers and dependents) are a menace and a danger to society, while “we” (the criminal justice system and the enfranchised) are not them; “we” are above them, as contributing members of society.

The shortsightedness of this approach is, on face, hit-you-over-the-head obvious. Psychiatrists, including Dr. O’Brien, call this societal phenomenon “in-group/out-group homogeneity,” which basically means that if you perceive yourself to be a part of a particular group, those who you perceive to be outside of said group are all the same (= homogeneity), and in this case, those outside the group are “unworthy” and “possess little societal value.”

The problem with this set of beliefs is that they fly in the face of reality, as one-in-four Americans will abuse an illegal substance at some point in their lives, and while currently 33 million of the “in-group” are abusers of prescription pills in an equally illegal fashion, but they do so largely with impunity. Yet, an even larger hindrance to our collective understanding is how wholly inaccurate popular perceptions are about the (legal) substances the “worthy” ingest, or inhale.

Tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death in the first world, period. If you think and proclaim that alcohol is better for you and safer to your health than marijuana is, I have a cheap, beautiful (shrinking) piece of property to sell you on Greenland’s ice-shelf.

The Honorable Judge has fallen victim to the aforementioned, unlearned binary; he sees the state of the County in an “us” versus “them,” in-group/out-group paradigm that promulgates injustice and further denigrates the true victims of the real menace, addiction.

Substance abuse & dependence is most frequently a victimless crime, and only by virtue of its state-sanctioned illegality is there any collateral damage inflicted on society. By definition, criminality, psychologically speaking, is contingent upon someone taking an action that adversely affects another, unwitting party with the intention of benefiting oneself. By this metric, and by many others based in scientific fact, substance abusers and addicts are inexorably not criminals.

In the last three years, two other countries have taken the lead on this issue and they have set the gold standard in drafting and implementing sensible, non-criminal drug policies in their respective countries. Portugal and Uruguay came to a national consensus and decided that no longer would mentally ill, self-harming drug users and addicts be treated like vile, degenerate, and dangerous criminals. Their collective conscience is an inspiration and a calling to the rest of the world to follow suit.

We, as a community and as a nation, must leave the glaring failure that has been the War on Drugs behind. We must stop throwing good money after bad in fighting the distribution and use of goods that, Economists note, have the most inelastic demand curve of any good or service that can be economically measured. And we must cease to find personal significance and value in denouncing and judging the lifestyles of others.

Drug users, abusers, and addicts need help from their communities, churches, and non-governmental organizations. They need social support and they deserve our empathy. Undoubtedly, what they do not need is a Judge on a personal campaign for additional notches in his proverbial belt.

Andrew “Drew” Remley
Former Albion resident who now lives in Brooklyn