Like many people, I was delighted this past November when voters in California and Arizona approved, by substantial margins, two ballot initiatives that represent a change in direction in our drug policies. The California initiative legalized the cultivation and use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. The Arizona initiative went further, allowing doctors to prescribe any drug for legitimate medical purposes and mandating treatment, not incarceration, for those arrested for illegal drug possession. It also stiffened penalties for violent crimes committed under the influence of drugs.
These results are significant both in terms of their immediate impact and because they suggest that Americans are beginning to recognize both the futility of the drug war and the need to think realistically and openly about alternatives.
Our drug warriors responded by pushing the panic button. The drug czar, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, claimed that “these propositions are not about compassion, they are about legalizing dangerous drugs.” I was severely attacked for having supported the initiatives financially. Joseph Califano described me in The Post as the “Daddy Warbucks of drug legalization” and accused me of “bamboozling” the voters with misleading advertisements. I was denigrated in congressional hearings chaired by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and in the New York Times, A.M. Rosenthal went so far as to imply that I represent a new kind of “drug money.”
I must reject these accusations. I am not for legalizing hard drugs. I am for a saner drug policy. I am just as concerned about keeping drugs away from my children as any responsible parent. But I firmly believe that the war on drugs is doing more harm to our society than drug abuse itself. Let me explain my perspective.
I became involved in the drug issue because of my commitment to the concept of open society. The open society is based on the recognition that we act on the basis of imperfect understanding and our actions have unintended consequences. Our mental constructs, as well as our institutions, are all flawed in one way or another. Perfection is unattainable but that is no reason to despair. On the contrary, our fallibility leaves infinite scope for innovation, invention and improvement. An open society that recognizes fallibility is a superior form of social organization to a closed society that claims to have found all the answers.
I have devoted much of my energies and resources over the past two decades to promoting the concept of open society in formerly communist countries. I have started to pay more attention to my adopted country, the United States, because I feel that the relatively open society we enjoy here is in danger. (There is nothing new about this peril; it is a characteristic of open societies that they are always endangered.)
Our drug policies offer a prime example of adverse, unintended consequences. There is perhaps no other field where our public policies have produced an outcome so profoundly at odds with what was intended. But those who are waging a “war on drugs” refuse to recognize this fact. They consider all criticism subversive. To suggest the possibility that the war on drugs may be self-defeating is tantamount to treason in their eyes. This was confirmed by their reaction to the approval of the drug policy ballot initiatives in California and Arizona.
I should like to set the record straight regarding my role in the ballot initiatives. I personally contributed approximately $ 1 million, which represents 25 to 30 percent of overall contributions. I was not involved in the planning and execution of either campaign or in the drafting of the initiatives. Those who are upset about the role money played in these campaigns might better focus their attentions on the substantial sums of taxpayer dollars spent by government officials who actively opposed the initiatives.
I can well understand, however, why the drug warriors would be upset by my involvement. I have no use for drugs. I tried marijuana and enjoyed it but it did not become a habit and I have not tasted it in many years. I have had my share of anxieties concerning my children using drugs, but fortunately it was not a serious problem. My sole concern is that the war on drugs is doing untold damage to the fabric of our society.
I believe that a drug-free America is a utopian dream. Some form of drug addiction or substance abuse is endemic in most societies. Insisting on the total eradication of drug use can only lead to failure and disappointment. The war on drugs cannot be won; but, like the Vietnam War, it has polarized our society.
And its adverse effects over time may be even more devastating. Criminalizing drug abuse does more harm than good, blocking effective treatment and incarcerating far too many people. Our prison and jail population—now more than a million and a half—has doubled over the past decade and more than tripled since 1980. The number of drug law violators behind bars has increased eightfold since 1980, to about 400,000 people.
Our drug policies are especially harsh on African Americans. Among young African American men, the war on drugs has contributed strongly to a rate of incarceration so high that it disrupts family structures in our cities and increases the number of single-parent families. One out of every seven black men has been disenfranchised, permanently or temporarily, by felony convictions. Among black adults between the ages of 25 and 44, AIDS is now the leading cause of death, with half of those cases resulting from drug injections.
At the same time, proper treatment of drug addicts is inhibited by the fact that they are regarded as criminals. Tens of thousands sit behind bars—at substantial cost to themselves, their families and taxpayers—rather than in less costly, more effective drug treatment programs. Even methadone treatment and needle exchange programs are discouraged.
There are indications that our prohibitionist policies have increased drug-related disease and death, and had a much-documented impact on the crime rate. Restrictions on access to sterile syringes facilitate the spread of HIV and other diseases. Drug addicts overdose from street drugs of unknown purity and potency, injuring or killing themselves and placing strains on the health care system.
Focusing resources in a lopsided manner on the interdiction of supplies ignores basic economic principles. As long as demand and profits are high, there is no way to cut off supply. There will always be large numbers of people willing to risk incarceration for the chance of making so much money.
It is, of course, easier to identify what is wrong with present policies than to design better ones. I do not pretend to know what the right drug policy is; but I do know that the present policy is wrong. A more reasonable approach would try to reduce both supply and demand and aim at minimizing the harmful effects of drug abuse and drug control. I am aware of at least some of
the steps we should be taking now: making methadone and sterile syringes readily available to addicts; removing criminal prohibitions and other sanctions on the ability of doctors and patients to treat pain and nausea with whatever medications work; saving our jail and prison cells for violent criminals and predatory drug dealers, not nonviolent drug addicts who are willing to undergo treatment; and exploring new means of reducing the harms done by drug use and our prohibitionist policies.
If public opinion were ready for it, I would advocate “hollowing out” the black market for drugs by making heroin and certain other illicit drugs available on prescription to registered drug addicts while discouraging non-addicts with social opprobrium, the dissemination of reasonable and persuasive information on the harms caused by drugs, and, to the extent necessary, by legal sanctions. If the Swiss and the Dutch and the British and increasingly other countries as well can experiment with new approaches, so can the United States.
Not all the experiments have been successful. Zurich’s unsuccessful attempt to regulate an open-air drug market in the early 1990s became known as “Needle Park” and gave the city a bad name. But recent initiatives in Switzerland have been more successful and generated widespread public support. The national heroin prescription experiment has proven remarkably effective in reducing illicit drug use, disease and crime, and helped many addicts to improve their lives. Swiss voters approved this initiative in local referendums.
Our first priority should be to discourage children from using drugs. Even marijuana can be harmful to the mental and emotional development of youngsters. But demonizing drugs can increase their appeal to adolescents, for whom rebellion is often an important rite of passage to adulthood. And we must be particularly careful not to exaggerate the harmful effects of marijuana because it may undermine the credibility of our warnings about harder drugs.
Generally speaking, de-emphasizing the criminal aspect of drug use should be accompanied by more, rather than less, social opprobrium for the drug culture. Education and social disapproval of cigarette smoking have been much more successful than the war on drugs.
America is a world leader in cutting down on cigarette smoking, and, simultaneously, one of the world’s losers in dealing with drug abuse.
Unfortunately the present climate is inimical to a well-balanced drug policy. Crusading advocates of prohibition and deterrence—Rosenthal, Califano, McCaffrey and others—stand in the way of reasoned discussion. They insist that there is only one solution to the drug problem, namely, the “war on drugs” and that those who are critical of present policies are enemies of society. Few elected officials dare to incur their wrath. Hysteria has replaced debate in the public discourse.
It was left to the voters of California and Arizona to introduce a note of sanity into our drug policy. Califano asserts that they were bamboozled but, in doing so, he reveals a totalitarian mind-set. When he claims that the voters of Arizona and California did not know what they were voting for when they supported the two initiatives, he reminds me of the way Serbia’s President Slobodan Milosevic reacted to recent election results in that country. Defenders of failed policies often claim that they know better than the voters themselves what is best for the voters.
The voters in Arizona and California have demonstrated that it is possible to support more sensible and compassionate drug policies while still being tough on drugs. I hope that other states will follow suit. I shall be happy to support (with after-tax dollars) some of these efforts, and I look forward to the day when the nation’s drug control policies better reflect the ideals of an open society.