Saturday, January 19, 2008

Legalize Drugs-Then What?

Since I retired from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1995 and went into teaching and writing, I have been pretty much removed from the drug enforcement scene. Once in a while, I see some of my old DEA colleagues in California at retirements and funerals, but a lot of my old friends are spread out across the country. The so-called War on Drugs (a misnomer in my view) has been largely overshadowed by the War on Terror-which is very real. However, the drug scene is still out there. I remember when I began my career in 1970, I hoped that by the time I retired, our efforts would cause drug use to decline to a manageable level. I, of course, was wrong. Not only are drugs still prevalent, but the drug legalization advocates are still out there. They say that in a free society, people should be allowed to put whatever they want in their bodies. They also say that enforcement has neither reduced the supply nor the demand. They say by keeping it illegal, the price remains higher and more lucrative for the traffickers. Many feel that DEA should be abolished. In their view, drug use would actually decline if made legal. Occasionally, I get asked about my views on legalization. My basic response is that legalization advocates should answer a few questions.

First of all, which drugs would they legalize? Would they legalize only "soft" drugs like marijuana, hash and LSD while keeping heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine illegal? Or would they legalize all drugs? Unless they are willing to legalize all drugs, there would still be a need for enforcement.

Second, would the advocates of legalization put age limits on who could use drugs? Would it be 21, 18, 12? Unless there are virtually no limits as to age, there would still be need for enforcement. That means that virtual infants and toddlers could be given drugs by an adult.

Third, if drugs were legalized, who would be authorized to provide them? Pharmacists, doctors, pharmaceutical companies? Who would supervise their commerce? The government? Perhaps we would have government sites that would dispense drugs.

Once that issue was settled, how would the traffickers and dealers react? Would they just be grateful for being decriminalized and go away to pursue honorable and legal jobs? Or would they try to compete underground by lowering their prices, offering a better product-or would they resort to violence and intimidation against the newly-established drug providers. Remember, we are talking about criminals here. Contrary to the claims of many that people in prison for drug crimes are non-violent, that is a disengenuous argument. Most drug organizations do use violence as a part of their business. Think of traffickers world-wide and the carnage they have brought to places like Colombia, Mexico and Sicily. These people will continue to be criminals one way or another.

You may think the above scenarios I listed are ridiculous, but this is the situation we would face if we decided to eliminate drug laws. When I was stationed in Italy in the 1980s, I had an occasion to go to Paris on a case. Also there on the same case was a British Customs Agent. One evening, while we were checking out the various libraries in Paris, I asked him about the British experiment in dispensing legal heroin to registered addicts (since discontinued). He explained to me that the practice had been an abject failure and was stopped because it only managed to triple the addict population.

I mention the UK because many people here like to point to Europe as the example to emulate. "Why don't we do like the Dutch do?", they ask. I had a few occasions to go to Holland and work with the Dutch drug cops. If you have not been to Amsterdam, I highly recommend a visit. Then you will see the effect that a liberalized policy has had on that society. Amsterdam is a magnet for druggies from all over the world. But then again, we are talking about a society that thinks that child porn is a minor issue.

I also worked with the Swiss cops in Zurich on numerous occasions and had a chance to see the infamous "Needle Park" where addicts could freely shoot heroin, putting a blight on an otherwise beautiful city. Not surprisingly, the town also became a magnet for drug users from elsewhere. If you don't like the immigration picture in the US now,see what it's like if we legalize drugs. We will be inundated with drug-users who will flock here-and not to find jobs.

I personally don't demand that people be put in jail for simple possession or use. DEA has never been involved in enforcing and prosecuting that level of drug offense. Most jurisdictions recognize that we have too few resources to devote to this level of the drug world. However, there should be no apologizing for incarcerating traffickers and dealers. Their actions are a scourge on our society.

Yet, many say that all the enforcement of the past 4 decades has not shown results. Well, I answer yes and no. Had it not been for enforcement, we might have sunk under the weight of our drug problems years ago. Yes, the level of drug abuse has not really declined. However, if that is a reason to eliminate drug laws, then why not get rid of laws against murder, robbery, rape and so on? Our murder rates continue at a disgraceful number every year. We continue to enforce these laws because it is the right and moral thing for a civilized nation to do. In reality, what is needed is a three-pronged approach; enforcement, education and rehabilitation. While enforcement has not been entirely a success, either have education and rehabilitation either.

Much of the public is not aware that to legalize drugs would abrogate international treaties that we and virtually every civilized nation have signed to prohibit cultivation, production and traffic of illicit drugs. Indeed, the US, through the State Department, DEA, Customs and other agencies have led the way in encouraging other nations to crack down on the traffic. If we give up, who will bother to carry on?

I am as much a proponent of limited government control over our lives as anyone. Keep in mind that we have not employed truly draconian measures against drug traffickers since we are a democratic society. Yet, at a certain point, a society has the right and the responsibility to avoid becoming a cesspool that will adversely affect the lives of everyone. Legalization advocates who had a chance to see a crack house or (heroin) shooting gallery might not be so convinced that we should tolerate their existence. In the final analysis, if we were to legalize drugs, government would have to,in one way or another, involve itself in the providing of drugs to its people. If my government were involved in any way in providing drugs to my children, I would cease allegiance to that government.


Anonymous said...

I don't know if you meant to write more, but I suppose that you could also say, "They're illegal. Now what?"

Personally, I think that far too much time and money is spent on the "War on Drugs" and it's questionable as to how effective it even is. After all, nobody's not doing heroin because it's illegal.

As for marijuana, I think it's ridiculous that I can brew my own beer and drink as much as I want, but somebody can't grow their own marijuana for their own use. (And no, I don't smoke it. In fact, I've never even tried it.)

I don't know why making things illegal is always seen as a solution. It often just seems to cause more problems. How about the prohibition of alchohol? Like Homer Simpson said, "They tried that in the movies and it didn't work!" In all seriousness though, I don't think that legalization is going to solve our drug problems, but it might allow us to put our energies and focus on other ways of solving the problem.

I suppose that some things obviously need to be illegal to have and use (like plutonium), but isn't this supposed to be a free society?

And yes, I feel the same way about firearms.

Gary Fouse said...

You raise good arguments, Lance, but you didn't deal with those questions about how we legalize drugs. Would it be no-holds-barred-or still have limits that would have to be enforced?

I didn't get into marijuana because that would entail another essay in itself to deal with the MJ proponents.

Anonymous said...

Oh, don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to say that the solution to the drug problem is to simply legalize it. I do, however, believe that's the first step into solving our drug problem. (Well, I doubt that we'll ever completely solve it, but it would solve some of the problems that go along with it, especially the crime.)

As for how exactly we'd go about it, that's for smarter minds than mine. My only point is that making them illegal wasn't exactly a well thought out plan either, and that ultimately, making things illegal won't necessarily make them go away.)

Don't get me wrong, your point is a good one, and it's a question that should be thoroughly examined before such a thing happens. I don't see it as happening in my lifetime though (maybe MJ, but nothing beyond that) so I haven't given too much thought as to exactly how we should go about it.

But if you're implying that those who think that legalizing them would be some sort of magical solution are deluded, then you're right.

Anonymous said...

Okay, now that I was actually able to read your entire post (instead of just a headline! I thought you were going for a minimalist approach!) I see that I agree with you for the most part.

Anybody who thinks legalizing it is some sort of magic pill (can't seem to think of a less obvious metaphor) to the drug problem is deluded. It's definitely not a simple issue, but I'll stick with my original statement that what we're doing right now isn't exactly the solution either, which isn't too different from what you wrote. (Perhaps the scary thing is that a solution might not exist - I'd hate to think of that.)

For one thing, I hate when I read about drug busts for marijuana in the paper. I always wonder if this is a good use of my taxpayer money. If we do start legalizing, then we should start with that. Naturally, the government would have to get involved, and then they could tax it, just like they do alchohol.

As for people who grow their own, some sort of law would have to be established regarding that. After all, it's legal for us to make our own beer and wine, but illegal to distill spirits. I don't know enough about MJ to know what kind of line could and should be established though.

But as I said before, it's ridiculous that alchohol is legal and marijuana isn't. I mean, think of all the death and misery that alchohol causes every year. Not that marijuana doesn't have ill effects, but it's nowhere near the level of booze.

Gary Fouse said...

When I was in Customs (1970-73), I participated in several marijuana busts. They were virtually all smuggled in to the US from Mexico by private plane. Thus, we are talkng about quantities of say at least 500 lbs. (commercial quantities. A lot of $$$ involved. In fact, due to the nature of commercial marijuana cultivation and sales, DEA has seized more assets from marijuana cases than any other drug-at least up to my retirement and probably even now. (Large conveyances, properties, cash etc,) For example, planes, ships, trucks and cars that are used to transport commercial quantities of drugs are subject to seizure.

I realize it is dicey in comparing alcohol to marijuana. True, alscohol, when abused, causes many problems. Let's face it though. Alcohol has stood the test of time, and we tried Prohibition. I do feel however that when used responsibly, alcohol is ok. Our illicit drugs are used specifically to get high.

Last point on MJ. The scientific facts are not complete, but it does appear that it causes damage to the reproductive organs. It also contains more tar than tobacco although I don't know of anyone who has died from lung cancer caused by MJ. One would have to smoke a prodigious amount. Interestingly, some claim that Bob Marley died from lung cancer brought on by mj.-I don't know.Anyway, I think those that claim that mj is not harmful to health are losing the argument-just as they lost that argument about cocaine. Of course, we know that when young people use mj during their formative period, it adversly affects their drive-crucial in school years.

As for the so-called mj clinics in calif, etc. They are violation of federal law. (State law cannot supercede a federal law.) They are also responsible for a lot of mj being dispensed to "patients with drs prescriptions" and being sold on the street. I also think this stuff about mj being the only thing that can alleviate certain kinds of suffering is a crock. There are plenty of legally-prescribed drugs out there that are much more efficacious in alleviating pain and nausea. To me, this is a big trojan horse being used to legalize MJ.

Anonymous said...

I'm not entirely sure what you mean by alchohol having "stood the test of time." Just because something's been around a long time, that doesn't make it okay. Shoot, even the ancients knew about its dangers, as there are examples of that in works as old as The Odyssey.

I personally don't see the difference (aside from legality) between myself having a few beers after a stressful week of work and somebody smoking a joint after a stressful week of work. We're both doing it to relax - mine is just socially acceptable. (And I know people who do this.)

Don't get me wrong. I'm not so foolish enough as to say that MJ isn't harmful, but I can think of several people whom I've personally known off of the top of my head whose lives have been ruined (or at least affected severely) by alchohol. I know people who smoke pot, but none of them have been hurt by it like the alchoholics I've known.

And again, keep in mind that this is coming from a guy who's never smoked weed and brews his own beer.

As for the medicinal uses, you might be right. However, I'm not going to be the guy to tell an AIDS patient with no apetite that he can't have a joint. Could you look at somebody like that right in the eye and say, "Oh, I'm sure that there's some legal alternative you haven't thought of"? I know I sure couldn't.

I imagine it'd be even harder to look them in the eye if they had cataracts.

I dunno, to deny these people this stuff seems obstinantly cruel.

Gary Fouse said...

I only meant that we have used for centuries and it is an accepted practice if not abused.

As I said, it would be a waste of time and resources to try and arrest people for using marijuan, besides, who would give you a search warrant for that purpose. I can't speak for every jurisdiction in the country, but most arrests for simple use these days are when somebody violates their parole or probation by testing dirty.

Ingrid said...

I would not compare drinking alcohol with smoking marijuana. Unless one is an alcoholic and just drinks to get drunk, most people enjoy the taste of alcoholic beverages, and drink for that reason. There are so many different tastes to enjoy, and used sensibly, give great pleasure.
Marijuana doesn't even taste good, and people smoke it only to get high, not because they enjoy the taste. Now, for medical reasons I agree it should be available and as far as I know, it is. In my lifetime I've known drunks and I've known potheads. Neither ones are fun to be around.