the criminalization of drug use

April 30, 2001

About two weeks ago, I was watching 60 Minutes. They were doing a story on ex-baseball player Daryl Strawberry and his addiction to alcohol and drugs — in particular, cocaine and crack. For those of you who don’t know, Strawberry was one of the greatest baseball players of his generation. What would have been a wonderful career crashed because of his disease. And because of his problems, he is ineligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

My point here isn’t to just talk about one baseball player’s problems. It is just that as I watched the program, I was left with an outrage and a deep understanding of how insane and how corrupt our government’s policies on drug use are. It is sick stuff, and it is time we took some responsibility for it.

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it — and, I think, not only doomed to repeat it but also doomed to repeat it even worse the second time around.

In 1919, the Senate passed the 18th Amendment, an act that criminalized alcohol’s sale and consumption. What followed was fourteen years of criminality, violence and unbelievable degrees of corruption at every level of government. It gave criminals the springboard to go from being just local thugs to creating a highly organized national criminal syndicate. That syndicate has become even bigger now as it has become an international phenomenon due to the criminalization of certain drugs.

The public grew mighty tired of the mayhem caused by prohibition, which was ultimately repealed by the 21st Amendment in 1933.

Now I dare you to do this: ask anyone who was alive during prohibition whether or not people drank less during prohibition. They often will tell you that prohibition gave a certain allure of danger to drinking, so lots of folks actually drank more. They made liquor at home in bathtubs and in stills, but sometimes they made poison and died as a result.

Under this law, the government became more corrupt. Municipal governments came to be heavily influenced by the alcohol merchants; the police, too. Is it any different now?

There are currently two million Americans in prison serving time on drug-related offenses, which means that we have the dubious distinction of having the highest percentage of our population in prison of any country in the world. In this country, there is a marijuana arrest every forty-nine seconds.

In 1999, the federal budget for the drug war exceeded $18 billion. This figure does not include the billions and billions budgeted at the state, county and municipal levels. If we divided that money up and gave it to 10,000 communities in our country to pay for rehabilitation centers and programs, we’d have more than $2 million per year, per community, for 10,000 communities. Think about the good use that money could be put to.

The truth is, there are many people making big money off of this war on drugs. It’s more of a profit-making enterprise than it is a “war” on anything.

An old friend of mine was a police chief in New York. He retired about ten years ago and moved to Florida. But once he was down there, he got bored, so he took a job as special deputy sheriff in Broward County. Broward is the county that has Miami and simply put: a lot of dope moves through Broward County in any given year. My friend’s job was to investigate and figure out how to diminish the level of corruption in the sheriff’s department related to drug money.

My friend did it for a while and then quit. He told me, “How do you control corruption when you got detectives being paid a million dollars to just look the other way?” And down there, a million bucks isn’t even considered a major bribe.
The war on drugs has lasted longer than any war in the history of the United States and our politicians keep feeding us the same line that it is somehow necessary. But the real truth is politicians need an enemy, so they can be seen by the electorate as battling something. In the ‘50s, they would get elected by being tough on communists and now they’ve found a new enemy in drugs. They have no real interest in eradicating drug use altogether because that would take away one of their major election platforms. Plus, there’s just too much money to be made from this war.
You see, if we are going to deal with this issue, we have to start by being honest with ourselves.

Most people have tried or are using come kind of drug.. It is in all of our lives. How many families out there have had to struggle with their children using drugs?

We need to face up to the fact that criminalizing the use of all drugs probably isn’t the wisest approach, because all it’s doing is filling up our prisons and draining the system of resources.

As with prohibition, this country needs to realize that some vices are acceptable. Or, at the very least, that the decision whether or not to use these substances — like alcohol and marijuana or LSD, even — should be left to we the people, not to the politicians and federal law.

We lose more lives to the war on drugs every month than we lost during the entire war in Vietnam. And you know that the arms merchants, the prison-building companies, the banking and military industries are getting rich off of this.

And there is a key parallel here between Vietnam and the war on drugs: Vietnam was an unwinnable war, and so is the war on drugs. There were innocent civilian casualties in Vietnam, and there are innocent civilian casualties with the drug war.

Similarly, there was grassroots opposition to the Vietnam War, and today there is grassroots opposition to the war on drugs.

In 1967, I took very pure LSD for the first time. It was amazing and I still say that experience saved my life — it opened up my mind and my heart in so many ways.

Drugs aren’t all bad, and the people who use them aren’t all bad. Some day, and hopefully soon, we’ll wake up to these facts before we lose any more to the war.

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