Trying to Think About Drugs
Wed, 20 May 1998
Author: JON CARROLL
TRYING TO THINK ABOUT DRUGS
LET US SAY only what we know. The citizens of the United States are still troubled by a knot of problems usually collected under the rubric ``drugs.'' Citizens are frustrated by the lack of progress in solving the problem of ``drugs,'' and therefore by the nature of the solutions themselves.
Those who care about traditional values are concerned that the use of illegal drugs continues largely unabated. Seventeen years after the Reagan Revolution changed much of America's perception of itself, citizens are still just saying yes to drugs. Amber waves of marijuana continue to carpet the fruited plains; tons of cocaine move across our borders daily despite billions spent on interdiction.
Those concerned with personal freedoms point to escalating assaults on privacy, due process and private property created by laws passed to support the war on drugs. The property of people still innocent in the eyes of the law has been seized, their homes have been invaded, their personal behavior, no matter how nonviolent or socially harmless, has resulted in serious prison time.
People who see public issues in terms of the inequities of class and race note that the war on drugs has somehow turned into yet another aspect of the war against the poor. More prisons are being built at the expense of other social programs, and these prisons are being filled with the usual suspects-- poor whites, Latinos, African Americans.
Even worse: All of these trends are happening in an atmosphere of misplaced piety and rampant hypocrisy. The usual counterbalances to abusive government power -- the press, the polemicists, the opposition parties -- have been largely silent on these issues.
No one wants to be seen as pro-drug. There are too many other worthy causes. Think of the children.
On the other hand: Think of the children of the people in jail.
THE HYPOCRISY STARTS in the very definitions of the crime. The most dangerous recreational drug in America is alcohol, and yet it is legal - -- indeed, it is hardly regulated. There are more warning labels on diet soft drinks than on bourbon.
Rich people can get doctors to write them prescriptions for the narcotics they want. Poor people have to buy their drugs on the street. Getting the money to buy the drugs often involves criminal behavior, of which the easiest and least violent is selling the drugs. Selling drugs is a felony. Selling drugs means hard time.
Hollywood has long taken up the cause of unpopular men. Loathsome murderers ( ``Dead Man Walking'') turn into Sean Penn; IRA terrorists ( ``The Devil's Own'') turn into Brad Pitt. But where are the gentle dealers of marijuana, the morally conflicted crack addicts? These people exist in real life, but Hollywood won't touch people who touch drugs, probably because too many people in Hollywood have touched too many drugs.
There are more people in prison all the time, and those incremental humans often don't belong there. If you have 2 million people in prison, and the next year you have 3 million, where has the extra million come from? Not from hard-core murderers and sociopaths -- they're already inside. They're easy to catch.
It's the fringe players, addicts, rebels, nutballs, vets who never made it home and kids who never made it at all -- the people who, in a less obsessed society, are taken care of in discreet, private and inexpensive ways.
Meanwhile, because of the distortion of justice promoted by the war on drugs, villains walk free. A man who beats a woman is sent to a diversion program; a man who sells pot to that same woman is sent to prison.
Because we have zero tolerance. And tiny brains.
I THINK AMERICA is a swell idea for a country, and I think the war on drugs is the moral equivalent of terrorism against the Constitution.
I think we start afresh. We've been looking the other way too long. I have some ideas.
It's the elephant in the living room, and someone should mention it.