Hooked on the Drug Problem

By Ralph Mason Dreger

Vol. 11, No. 4, 1989, pp. 7-8

How do we fight the drug problem? Well, first, it must be recognized that it is not "the drug problem," but a whole congeries of problems:

  • the growing in other countries of crops of what we call "illicit drugs" but which are the sole sustenance of multitudes of farmers;
  • the creation of "narco-millionaires" in Columbia, Peru and elsewhere;
  • the illegal importation and/or growing of drugs here (such as U.S.-grown marijuana)
  • the shipment of drugs through other countries (as in the Bush-Noriega connection);
  • the impotence of law enforcement agencies that are overwhelmed in attempting to combat drugs;
  • the high profits from smuggling and "dealing" on our streets;
  • the extreme poverty in the midst of extreme plenty, as an underclass looks with envy on prosperous drug dealers, and the flaunting of the leisure class in the face of the unemployed and underemployed;
  • the easy access to "licit" drugs (Tylenol, alcohol, Demarol) for relief of mental or physical pain or production of pleasure
  • the breakdown of families;
  • the use of long sentence and capital punishment for street criminals juxtaposed against plush federal prisons (or probation and restitution) for white collar criminals;
  • and so on.

The "Drug Problem" is such a host of related issues that it is an almost impossible morass. As such, "it" has no simple solution.

How then do we fight the drug problem? Not how we have been fighting it--or at least not how our governments have been fighting it. Multiplied millions have been spent, armies of drug fighters spread from here to the growing regions of Columbia and Peru, and local law enforcement agencies have been overwhelmed with drug operatives. The government links anti-Communism with the fight against drugs even though officials know that in Latin America, Communist insurgents and the drug kings are mortal enemies who visit murder campaigns on each other. It is considered "patriotic" to support all these huge expenditures and extraordinary efforts, to excuse the unconstitutional actions of the Drug Enforcement Agency and its allies in the name not only of fighting drugs but of Americanism. The Right postures about a federal death penalty for drug kings--a notion which would be as ineffective against drug traffic as it has been in deterring murder.

Observers fairly well agree that the War on Drugs has failed. So what do we do in response to our evident failure? We appropriate not millions but billions, we appoint an official "drug czar" (we have had at least ten called by different names since Nixon began The War), and we beef-up the same fruitless activities in which we have been engaging.

Before offering some suggestions about how to deal with the drug problem, let me point out some of the human rights violations the War on Drugs is perpetuating. The DEA itself has acted in ways that are a "mixture of the illegal and the unscrupulous" (Gierginer,D., "Inside the DEA," Reason, December, 1986, pp.23-29). On the merest suspicion of engaging in illegal drug trafficking a person's entire property can be confiscated, however false the suspicion actually proves. Law enforcement agencies have been using the so-called anti-racketeering RICO statute in ways scarcely envisaged by Congress. Now, all that you own can be taken away from you--and you have no recourse in law, for that is the law. The police are protected fully in violating your Fourth Amendment rights, in searching and seizing upon suspicion alone.

Let me add one note which demonstrates how the War on Drugs can be used to undermine people's rights: This spring David Duke introduced into the Louisiana legislature a bill (which fortunately died in committee) which had a high note of righteous justification for promoting the safety and welfare of children and adults.

The heart of the bill was this: "The legislature hereby establishes a mandatory drug testing program for adults in public assistance programs without the requirement of individualized suspicion." There are some of us who object to mandatory drug testing programs anyway, with all their errors and invasions of one's body, except for those directly involved in the safety of the public, and under very


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restricted circumstances at that. If Mr. Duke's bill is not a direct contravention of the Fourth Amendment, I do not recognize one. And if any reader does not know who David Duke is and what he represents, and what he actually meant by his bill, then it would be well for them to find out. I fear that we shall hear more of Mr. Duke and others of his ilk who have a chance to rise to power on such issues as the War on Drugs.

What, then do I advocate to fight the drug problem?

I urge that drugs be decriminalized and that the country back off on its present War on Drugs. We are repeatng the vain efforts of Prohibition.

It is estimated that one-quarter of the U.S. population uses illegal drugs. If they wish to do so, and are allowed to do so without being branded as criminals, all the vast apparatus which is now spinning its wheels in a vain efforts to stem the flow of drugs can be disbanded. Police can do the job they are supposed to do without having to detect whether someone has a fraction of an ounce of marijuana or cocaine or crack or whatever, or having to put someone in jail for what would otherwise be considered legitimate activities. Of course, I am speaking here of search and seizure operations, not of checking for DWI.

Police have enough to do just to cope with the ordinary problems in our society. To ask them to enforce the unenforceable makes their job virtually impossible, to say nothing of the pressures put upon those often underpaid and overworked officers in a climate where drug money flows so freely.

I would go farther than mere decriminalization of drugs, which is really only the first step in a genuine fight against the drug problem. I shall assume only that the monies which now are being wasted on the War on Drugs will be available for a sensible war. The next thing is to set up clinics for treatment of addicts, with free distribution of the substance(s) to which a person is addicted.

Support services with trained personnel as well as lay helpers from the several treatment programs, formal and informal, which have grown up in the last few years would be fully funded. Religious institutions and networks of the country would be enlisted, not in an attempt to co-opt religion into a governmental program, but to assist in doing what a number have been able to do in rehabilitating people.

Educational programs would, of course, be part of the plan of dealing with addicts or abusers. But such education would go far beyond rehabilitation education and become part of the curriculum in schools and colleges.

I should go even farther in my War on Drugs. I could suggest that more research needs to be done as to why people turn to drugs in the first place. Perhaps there should I be more research, only I think that enough has been done to enable us to get the general motivational picture: the need of youth to experiment is surely one reason. Peer pressure is already well known. Many in poverty seek ways to avoid despair and hopelessness. The same magical mechanism operating in the criminal who believes "I can't get caught" is a secondary motivation after the start along the way of drugs. The general acceptance of the licit drugs in our society promotes illicit drug use, as young people tell their oldsters, "I see no difference between what you are doing and what I am doing except that what I am doing is artificially classified as criminal."

Even though the general picture may be outlined, there may nevertheless be a need for research in motivation aimed, say, at specific drugs and their motivational influence or at other problems not sufficiently understood now. And, yes, such research as shown to be needed should be well-funded.

The War on Drugs is not only futile but dreadfully corrosive of our civil rights. If you don't like my way to fight drugs, then use your best ingenuity to devise a better one, one that will not undercut our Constitution, one that is compassionate and just, and one that will be reasonably successful.

Ralph Mason Dreger, a former member of the Southern Regional Council, is professor emeritus of psychology at Louisiana State University. Council members, life fellows, Associates and other members of the SRC extended family are invited to submit essays from The South at Large.