Below are some things I have come to believe after more than a decade in criminal defense law, more than five years on the county drug court, and 41 years of experience in life, about the War on Drugs. Some thoughts are my own some are thoughts of other’s I have come to believe, and some are likely universal truths for which no one can take credit. I cannot remember which are which so just assume all the good ones (the ones with which you agree) are not mine.
The War on Drugs, which began in June of 1971, has failed. How anyone could say otherwise is a mystery. Those people are not reachable.
When you call something a “war” it means all options are on the table. Options like invading the private lives of citizens, fashioning exemptions to the Fourth Amendment, surveillance, and other extreme measures are only options when it’s a “war.”
This—the encroachment on our private lives and liberties—and the destruction of already disadvantaged, marginalized people are the casualties of the War on Drugs.
Drug addiction is a chronic disease of the brain. It is not a moral failure or a behavioral issue. If we realize this, we understand people who struggle with addiction are people, not something less than. And we understand they are worthy of, and are capable of, redemption.
Drugs, and specifically making and selling drugs, follows basic models of business and capitalism. People make what sells, ship what sells, and don’t generally want to kill their customers but do want to establish a reputation as having the best (i.e. most potent) product. When a “new product” like fentanyl comes out, and it is as cheap as, or cheaper than, heroin and it’s more potent than heroin, people who use heroin quickly change their drug of choice to fentanyl because it is (to the person struggling with substance use) a superior product.
Drugs, including fentanyl, come to the United States because people in the United States want drugs, including fentanyl. If there were no market for drugs here, there would be no drugs here.
Compassion seems to be the only thing we haven’t tried in addressing the drug crisis in the United States.
You cannot prosecute your way out of the Opioid Epidemic. Harsher penalties are as irrelevant to someone who is addicted to drugs as is the fact that drugs are illegal.
The Drug Problem in the United States can only be solved along with the Mental Health Problem in the United States.
There are relatively simple things that could be done to address the overdose rate: encourage people to not use alone, to have Narcan, to call support lines when using (e.g. “Never Use Alone”), to test drugs for fentanyl with test strips, to provide medication for opioid use disorder to inmates who are incarcerated and are nearing release, and on and on. These things also get branded as “liberal” or “encouraging” drug use, but they are all things that for which data exists showing they work.
Our tendency to rank drug use is a mistake and prevents us from backing up to THE issue. For the person who believes they are using heroin and overdoses on fentanyl, and the person who believes they are using Adderall or Percocet and overdoses on fentanyl, and the person who knowingly uses fentanyl and overdoses, the question is why all felt like they had to use in the first place. Put another way, we need to ask the “why?” question first: why are people using drugs? If we can begin to address that problem, it begins to solve nearly every other problem the War on Drugs seeks to address.
There is no death from drugs that is “better” (or less blameworthy, or less culpable, “she didn’t know the Adderall contained fentanyl” etc.) or worse (more blameworthy, more culpable, “she knew she was taking fentanyl”) than any other death from drugs, insofar as all deaths from drugs are (1) a tragedy and (2) preventable.
Legalizing all drugs is not the answer. It is not the answer because it doesn’t address the “why” part of the drug problem.
We need to rethink our (the United States’) relationship with some drugs. It now appears that there is some real medical benefit to controlled, physician assisted, use of ketamine and some psychedelics, and marijuana seems to be useful as medicine under the supervision of a medical professional. This is not to say these drugs should be legalized; this is just to say we need to rethink how we think about these drugs.
Medication for Opioid Use Disorder like methadone and buprenorphine is not trading one drug or vice for another anymore than taking medication for diabetes, cholesterol, or to lose weight is. We need to rethink our feelings and approach to medication for opioid use disorder.