The Harmful Stupidity of US Drug Policy, Part II: Domestic Impact

Suzi Riot

This series is not an argument in favor of drug legalization, drug use, or substance abuse. Nor is it meant to include policy recommendations. Rather, this series is an exploration of how the War on Drugs exemplifies the destructive impact that public policy failures can have on society at all levels, from global affairs to individual lives. Previously, I had written about the foreign policy implications of our involvement in the War on Drugs, specifically in Central and South America. There is much, much more to be said on that subject but for now I’m moving on to the domestic, social implications of our drug policies.

In harm reduction policy “macro-harm” refers to total harm done to both users and society from drug use and the associated behaviors, while “micro-harm” refers to harm per use or per dose. The idea is that reducing micro-harm can reduce macro-harm; but this is not necessarily the case, primarily because enforcement has chosen to reduce use through interdiction and incarceration, each of which cause their own macro-harm to users and to society. If you’ve ever watched an episode of The Wire, you know what I’m talking about. Our institutions – police, education, government – following the standard and accepted policy practices, fail to achieve both micro- and macro-harm reduction and the cycle keeps on spinning with only the players changing. As with most illicit markets, strong incentives drive the supply. Prohibition and enforcement increase market prices and the addictive properties of the product ensure repeat customers who will pay high costs to get their fix. Interdiction does little to disrupt the supply, as production, distribution, and sales are quickly reestablished through replacement. The potential profits are so high that the threat of incarceration by enforcement or even death from market rivals are not prohibitive – particularly for those whose background and socioeconomic status leave them few other options for making nearly as much money.

In 2006, 53% of federal prison inmates were drug offenders while drug law violators comprised 19.6% of all adults serving time in state prisons. 27.9% of drug offenders in state prisons are serving time for possession; 69.4% are serving time for trafficking offenses; and 2.7% are in for “other.” 5.3% of drug offenders in federal prisons are serving time for possession; 91.4% are serving time for trafficking offenses; and 3.3% are in for “other.” When distributors, sellers, and users enter the prison system, they are not removed from the cycle – the market adapts and lives are only further destroyed. Individuals who have limited criminal histories and may have been incarcerated for minor possession offenses become part of a system in which they have limited options: forced to join a prison gang, participate in yet more severe forms of criminal behavior, left with the stigma of having been convicted of a felony and the resulting challenges in finding a good job once they are released.

An individuals’ choice to become involved with the criminal drug trade – whether production, trafficking, distribution, selling, or use – is a matter of personal responsibility. However, policy and legislative failures also determine these individuals’ paths. Limited access to education, negative modeled behaviors, depressed economic environments, little institutional support or protection; these issues can lead children and adolescents to feel trapped in a cycle that seems inevitable. These young people become involved in the criminal drug world at an early age. Racist mandatory minimums (crack vs. powder cocaine), manipulation and plea deals by ambitious prosecutors, ‘three strikes’ sentencing guidelines all ensure that few will escape that world.

Yet the rate of illicit narcotic abuse continues to rise. Trends in specific substance use ebb and flow; but from the Crack Problem to the Meth Problem, the same failed policies persist with no positive results. Attempts to control supply have failed. Many drug policy experts and researchers have begun to recommend mandatory treatment as part of a shift in focus on controlling demand. In my next post in this series, I’ll explore the successes and failures in experimental efforts to reduce introduction and recidivism.

~ by Suzi Riot on April 14, 2008.

20 Responses to “The Harmful Stupidity of US Drug Policy, Part II: Domestic Impact”

  1. Location dictates which substance is the biggest problem. In suburbia, Meth is on the rise due to it’s availability and ease of which it can be produced. In the meantime of the “education” on drugs, these educators are putting the tools directly into the hands of users. If you hold a seminar on meth, and outline exactly what ingredients and how much go into a batch of meth, look around you. How many people are taking notes? How many people are going to try it for themselves and or post it on the world wide web? Google it for yourself, the recipes are plentiful. Thus the educator has put the tools into the hands of potential or current abusers.

    How about a billboard that warns children not to sniff markers? A teenager may see that and think “hey, I didn’t know you could get high from that I think I’ll try it” (because most teenagers suffer from delusions of invincibility)

    How about the big money involved in busting drug rings? Just like cancer research, if it were to be eradicated lots of people are going to be out of work.

    In my humble opinion, the “bandaid” that is the war on drugs, is simply there to placate the general public when in all actuality if they really wanted to fight the war on drugs, they would start treating the person and not the abuse. There is a reason people are susceptible to addiction, and without delving into those reasons this will never end.

    Do you realize nearly all of the children in foster care today are taken from addicts? And the reason for that? They don’t get taken until the parent gets busted. In other words the child lives in that environment until an officer of the law is forced to remove them during a bust. As soon as the parent complies with their social services plan the child is returned, but the wounds from the experience are never dealt with, thus breeding the next generation of users.

    It’s a losing battle. So long as the govies continue to “educate” ie; put bandaids on a festering wound, this will never end but only get worse

  2. well spoke. //…start treating the person …// It is too logical for a government to embrace. Our current system seems bent on ‘mistreating’ the person. Mistreating our Life’s, our Hearts, our value as individuals.

  3. That was really interesting and very well written and concise. It certainly does seem like a losing battle though. The desire to take ourself out of “ourselves” via either substances or religion or whatever is something all societies have either accepted or grappled with. And when the it’s the latter, the grappling clearly often worsens the problem, as you have pointed out.

    It’s so very arbitrary though, isn’t it? Alcohol and tobacco are legal. As are numerous over-the-counter drugs that, sometimes when combined with alcohol or prescription drugs create pretty decent high for people looking for an out. Look what it did for Heath Ledger.

  4. “How about the big money involved in busting drug rings? Just like cancer research, if it were to be eradicated lots of people are going to be out of work.”

    Yes, an underclass is created and the middleclass makes their money off of them, I agree. Plus it increases the powers of the police state. When you are forced to give DNA samples against your will wtf is that? I’ll tell you, it’s an invasion of your human rights. The constitution gives us the right to privacy but anymore our privacy rights are constantly violated. There are many in the government who think the constitution is just a goddamned piece of paper and it shows.

    I believe it is in human nature to explore altered states of consciousness and that is what starts this whole ball rolling. Some people experiment a bit and then move on with their lives while others become addicted to altered states that are chemically induced and need help in order to stop.
    Suzi this is an excellent post on a very difficult subject. There are no easy answers but I do agree the system we have now is a joke.

  5. The so-called “war on drugs” has been just about effective as the “war on terrorism.”

    Billions and billion of taxpayer dollars poured into the uber-toilet and flushed — KABOOM and not a damned thing to show for it.

    I have always found it more than a little ironic that George W. Bush, when he graced the state capital of Texas with his demonic presence, never issued a pardon for a man or woman serving 20 years for using the very same drugs Lil’ George used while he was AWOL from the Texas National Guard. Talk about hypocrisy.

    And then there’s the issue of medical marijuana. Who the hell are these good-for-nothing wingtards who can look a person suffering with AIDS, or cancer, or MS, that they can’t have something to help ease their suffering? Yes, yes, compassionate conservatism? Or, is it something more insidious? Like allegiance to Big Pharma?

    I say, legalize pot. Regulate it so it is free of chemicals and maybe even tax it to pay for universal healthcare. I know such ideas are considered pretty damned far to the left, but my politics have always been left of a Sandanista.


    – a proud, bitter, gay man and an Obamaholic

  6. hey I am the one who posted the anon comment up above. I forgot to put my name in, duh.

  7. You’ve definitely nailed the issue and I agree with the people who’ve added their insights. The answer is definitely to treat those who have developed an addiction to harmful amounts of class one substances. I’m for legalizing everything natural and keeping an eye on the nasty chemical stuff.

    Another problem is that the gov’t has been making a lot of money – remember how Iran Contra was funded? It hasn’t stopped. Since the US invaded Afganistan poppy production has grown to epic proportionsand it’s not so Afghans can eat the stuff as part of a good mountain breakfast.

  8. // poppy production has grown to epic proportionsand it’s not so Afghans can eat the stuff as part of a good mountain breakfast.

    But, if they can eat that as a mountain breakfast it may help them forget how fucked we have helped their country.

    // I’m for legalizing everything natural and keeping an eye on the nasty chemical stuff. //


    I am all for breakfast at Susan’s.!!!!!

    God bless the stars and bars.

  9. Oh, gees, “Breakfast at Susan’s” sounds like a Capote story. Write on!!!

  10. the hypocrisy of drug policy in this country (and frankly most countries) is a joke — and everyone knows it. but as christopher said above — so is the war on terrorism.

    this is human nature — make something illegal and of course people are going to want to try it — just think back when you parent said you had to go to bed or couldnt eat something.

    only now it is on a different level. couple all that with the fact alcohol is legal, (and why not pot or coke or heroin) and that there is a certain amount of glorification done on getting drunk — and voila — you have a culture that desires altered states. (lets not also forget a society that often makes people feel horrible for whom they are or rejects them for whatever reason)

    there are only 2 solutions —- education and legalization. you can never ever make people just not want something becuase you make it illegal or hard to get.

    the drug policy of this country is complete and total failure — and it has been for years, even before the complete and total failure in the white house came along. but it will never change — NEVER. there is too much vested in this failure. i wrote about iraq worse the losing, americans late to admit they lose — well it is no different with the war on drugs — we will fight this hopeless and endless battle because we feel it is better to keep failing than admit we have and find another path

    great great post

  11. Suzi- all I will say is that I am really impressed with these posts. You are very clear about things that are so often obfuscated.

    And as DCap says – fighting hopeless and endless battles are very American. And very sad.

    Outstanding work woman!

  12. SuziRiot: I loved part 2 as much as I did part 1 and again have but one complaint: your need to begin with a disclaimer.

    That is not your fault. It is a cultural necessity, a shield, if you will if are going to take the radical position you do for a largely American readership. Your numbers tell the story of a vicious cycle. In Vancouver, BC, if you are caught with a small amount of heroin for personal use, a police officer is trained to give you a “caution” which includes suggesting an HIV test and giving you the option of rehab or to shoot at a government-sponsored spot which offeres clean needles, tests of purity of product, etc. Get caught with a small amount of heroin for persnal use in Seattle, Washington, and you’ve got some problems. You’re probably unlikely to end up in prison, but you will spend some time in jail. The emphsis of your punishment, make no mistke about it will not be on the societal goals of stopping the spread of HIV or of harm reduction or of guiding you to rehab. The emphasis of your punishment will be punishment for its own sake, to make Ma and Pa Kettle feel good or to keep Wackenhut and CCA’s “custmers” flowing.

    Science has taught us quite a bit, though. We’ve learned that every single person is hard-wired to “need” some form of inebriation. We’ve learned that psycho-active agents do not lend themsslves to the “scheduling” system used by law enforcement because every person’s body chemistry is different. We’ve learned that much of body chemistry is hereditary.

    But if we are dealing in absolutes, the two most dangerous psycho-active agents are the two legal ones: alcohol and tobacco. I tend to support legaization, inspection and regulation off all agents, with a best-efforts to keep them out of the hands of minors, and the counter-argument that “just because ‘WE’ have it all wrong about alcohol and tobacco doesn’t mean that ‘WE’ hava an obliagation to get it wrong about cocaine and heroin.” doesn’t really hold water. Take most of the criminal element out of the cocaine and heroin business and I strongly doubt there would be any greater damage to society. I’m not really scared of a junkie nodding and itching and guzzling sugary coffee. I am pretty scared of drunk drivers.

    Anne Marlowe’s book on “responsible” heroin use wsa greeted with an explosive resaction, none of it praising her for opening up the conversation. I read the book and while I don’t know the science which underlies it, I found the book credible. I beleive there are people who can use heroin the way most people use pre-prandial cocktails. Some people and not a lot. Maybe there are more than we think. I don’t know. It would be worth finding out, thuogh.

    On the international front, Suzi, apparently you missed a couple of memos. Right along with “Islamo-fascism” we now have the politically useful — I mean “correct” term — “narco-terrorism”. This makes the “war on terror” and “war on drugs” part and parcel. Both Muslim Extremists and FARC Atheists, you see, are now in cahoots to terrorize and destroy the fabric of American life.

    People actually believe that shit, huh?

    Reverend Wright got Obama in trouble for what again? Saying “God damn America”? OK. Last time I checked that was neither a criminal offense nor a terribly uncommon point of view. What else he do wrong? Suggest the CIA was involved in the drug trade in Colombia? No, Reverend. Stop it. You’re killing me with this. America has no piece of the Colombian drug business, Condoleeza Rice said so herself. It must be true. EVERYBODY KNOWS that the villains in the cocaine business are the FARC and young Black men. Whate are you all,stupid or something?

    The practical reality, we know, is quite different. Sure, the FARC grows coca, processes it and sells it. So does the Colombian army, police and paramilitaries. Right-wing leaders take conributions from corrupt law-enforcement. Left-wing leaders late contributions from the FARC. Basically, good Center-Right and Center-Left leaders like Alvaro Uribe and Cesar Gaviria,respecively, are caught in the middle. And the USA very much has a side in this, from Uribe rightward to the paras. And do Citibank and Chase like holding the money? You’re fucking A, they do. When you think about Colombia, which is otherwise a quasi-Western European nation, imagine America if ALL MOVIES INCLUDING ANIMATED DISNEY CHILDREN’S MOVIES WERE ILLEGAL AND IN THE HANDS OF BLACK-MARKETEERS. That’s Colombia. During Gaviria’s first-term there was a large legalization effort,which failed in the end and Gaviria settled for the best deal he could get: an increase in the social safety net, a long mortgage holiday for homeowners, and two or three other goodies. Not a bad deal all considered but the problem remains. As long as cocaine is illegal in Colombia, there will always be a FARC and always be Paramilitaries and a sophisticated Western country be always be beset by mayhem.

    I have no idea what Uribe’s master plan is. He goes from being U.S. puppet to indpenedent Latin head-of-state back to puppet, back to god-knows-what. It’s a fine line for him to walk. I do know, however, that if the leader of the center-left opposition, Cesar Gaviria, retakes the presidency, Americans are going to have a new villain and some legislation will be introduced in Congree by some Southern nutball that no Colombian coffee shall ever be drunk in the district of Colombia and Edgar Renteria will have the choice of changing his name to Robert E. Lee or have his Detroit Tigers contract torn up but will be deported nonetheless following whichever season it is.

    Coca leaves grown in the Andes and nowhere else. That’s a fact of life everyone is going to have to deal with. Or not. If the 100,000 Persian Jews of Teheran is a perfectly acceptable loss for Holy Joe Lieberman, than th3 500,000 Jews of Barranquilla, Bogota, Medellin and Cali many, many neck deep in the biz, should be no problem for Holy Joe if Gaviria is re-elected.

    On every level, it is up to America to do the one thing it never can do — LEAD ON THIS ISSUE. Too bad. Not my problem..

  13. Hey, you got a serious comment out of Doozie. You should see the abuse she heaps on moi.

    Seriously, good post.

  14. Kelso’s right about Canada as I discovered a few years ago when visiting a friend with a teenage son in Toronto. His father had caught him leaving the house with a gram scale and was pretty angry but he wasn’t annoyed or bothered about the grass the kid was carrying to share with his friends. He was upset about the possibility of losing a valuable antique.

    btw okjimm – I still have the recipe for the best brownies ever so dessert can be better than breakfast.

  15. Condoleeza (What kind of Fucking name is that?) said “So?”

    Well, that clears it up for me. After all, she’s one of the top three Sec.’s of State in US History.

  16. Yeah, Fairlane, she’s a great one. Right up there with Dulles and Shultz.

    I’m a strong believer in Affirmative-Action and I’ve got the math to back up exactly why no White person should worry about it, but sometimes Affirmative Action hires don’t work out. Rice is one example. Doesn’t mean the policy is bad.

    But, I tell you, buddy, I’ll give Rice credit for being the only person I can think of compared to whom Donald Rumsfeld has been a useful and dedicated public servant.

  17. drugs have been around forever. people have used them for ever.
    drug laws and usage was never aggressively prosecuted until the british flooded china and opium was king.
    the laws are a means of control hidde behind a phony veil of decency.
    Alcohol, nicotine, oxycontin, percocet.
    The majority of the people going to jail are poor and brown.
    You will never see them share a cell with a Phizer salesman.
    I don’t even want to get into methadone-Heroin is less harmful!!! But Phizer could not manufacture heroin.
    Puhleese again.
    I live in a town where drugs are rampant. They have done such a good job of interdiction (98% conviction rate) in the inner city all the business (sales) is in the burbs.
    Those people do not go to jail.

  18. Usually I try to respond to each comment individually, but I’m not able to do that this time and I apologize. Thanks to each of you for providing such a wonderful discussion around this very frustrating issue. In my next post in the series I’m going to try to address some of the things you’ve discussed in these comments because they deserve some further exploration.

  19. SuziRiot: I throw another couple out there for your meditation given the excellent work you’ve done in these two pieces.

    1) A simple solution to non-problem problem. In the mid-1970s, Hugh Carey, the governor of New York State, banned pay-toilets. His reasoning: it’s not just for a GOVERNMENT to expropriate money from its citizenry for having the need to defecate and urinate.

    2) Barrymax’s series on criminal injustice covered some of this in great depth already, and I love the above comment of his. Here’s my corollary. The longer I’m away, the more I notice it. There is an essential sadism in the American character. Take some of the injustices cited by Barrymax. The logical conclusion to such unfairness would be to rethink psychoactive agents in every regard, especially from the point of view of punishment.

    They tried a uniquely American approach to that once before: Federal Sentencing Guidelines, with the idea punishing everyone equally STRONGLY. It didn’t work for anyone but the private prison industry. I’m going to part company with fellow liberals here and I damned well blame Hollywood for this. Read Barrymax’s last two sentences and think about how YOU feel? I can’t say for sure, but I bet if everyone were honest with themselves, if they agreed with Barrymax (which I do), their solution would not be to devote scarce law enforcement efforts into more essential areas than inner-city interdiction, and it sure as hell wouldn’t be to consider legalization and/or decriminaliztion.

    The “liberal” point of view on this failure of the criminal justice system in Barrymax’s hometown would be like all of those wretched cop shows on TV up there: “wouldn’t it be funny if a white accuntant got busted with a lot of dope and had to go to prison and share a cell with (fill in racist nickname).”

    I’ve been a lot of places in the world and Americans are the only people who think that’s funny. For a huge majority of the world’s population, sexual bondage is expected but certainly not enjoyed.

    For the rest of the world who live in wealthy developed nations the idea of ANYONE going to prison for possession of drugs without intent to sell A LOT is absurd. Make a joke like that in parts of Africa or Asia and somebody will get real mad at you real quick.

    Make that joke in Denmark and nobody will understand it even if you told it in perfect Danish.

    Write that joke into a LAW & ORDER script and get your contract renewed for the next two seasons.

  20. Thank you for posting this piece. I am a child of my generation, I can say child, because we never grew up. One more reason I don’t want The Clinton’s in the white house again. If he didn’t inhale he is too stupid or too dishonest to receive his Social Security check, like McCain. This is a wonderful piece. I’m especially pleased to read the comments thread–Kelso, how did I miss you? Most intelligent comment award to Kelso! Thanks to Jonestown for hosting.

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