Monday, September 7, 2009

Drugs and Personal Values

Gore Vidal's essay Drugs gives us a stark contrast to Morton Kondracke's position that we should not legalize the use of street drugs. Vidal argues that legalization is the only sane choice to make and that because it's the sane approach, he wryly concludes, we aren't likely to take it.

So we have two rather bright fellows arguing from opposite sides: one saying that legalizing drugs is insane and the other saying that it's the only sane thing to do. How do we resolve this conflict of opinions? By careful analysis and then looking to our own souls and values, I think, as with most important social discussions.

From my reading, both Kondracke and Vidal are after the same result: they both want a better society. They both are looking for a way to better handle a situation that damages society. They both agree that drug use can be harmful to significant numbers of people, but that criminalizing and fighting drug use also has harmful social consequences. They differ in which they see as the greater harm. Kondracke believes that legalization will only increase the number of people using drugs and becoming addicted to them, thus increasing the damage to society. Vidal believes that those who want to use drugs and become addicted already use them, and not legalizing drug use perpetuates a corrupt system that benefits only criminals and drug enforcement agencies. Kondracke, then, believes that the best way to manage street drugs is through law enforcement and prosecution. Vidal believes that the best way to manage street drugs is through legalization and removing the profit motive.

Which approach fits best with your values? I think I side with Vidal. Why? First, because I don't think there is much chance of Kondracke's position succeeding, not in a society that I want to live in. We Americans basically like the freedom to do as we please, and we don't like an overly oppressive government. I know of only one example of a country as large as ours eradicating illegal use of drugs: Communist China. When the Communists came to power in China in 1948, China was known world-wide for its opium dens. Being strict moralists, the Communist Chinese didn't like this reputation or situation, so they empowered their police force to shoot on sight anyone suspected of illegal drug use. They slaughtered thousands of people, including many innocents, but within a few years, the opium dens were gone, and the drug trade and use was almost non-existant. So the Communist Chinese traded illegal drug use for an oppressive police state. I think that was a poor trade, and I don't want the United States to make a similar trade.

Instead of shooting people on sight for drug trade and use, we put them in jail. I'm not sure this is much better. Prison is the very best training a pot-head can get for mastering a career in crime. A prison record pretty much precludes a pot smoker from ever getting a legitimate job after prison and teaches them all they need to know about making a living through crime. Prisons are great factories for producing criminals.

And they are expensive. Our prison population is a monstrous drain on our national resources. According to a US Senate report, "The combined expenditures of local governments, state governments, and the federal government for law enforcement and corrections total over $200 billion annually." This is serious money. And what is the major cause of this booming business? The same report says, "Changes in drug policy have had the single greatest impact on criminal justice policy." We are putting more users in jail (4 out of 5 drug convictions are for use, not trafficking).

I simply don't think that putting millions of users in jail is benefiting society as much as we think it is, and I am not willing to authorize the police and military to shoot drug users and traffickers on sight. So for me, the War on Drugs has been a monumental failure, and I favor trying a new approach: decriminalize drugs to remove the profit motive both for the Mafia and the prison industry, educate society about the dangers of indiscriminate and excessive drug use, and treat those who develop a drug problem.

And I don't fear an explosion of new drug users as Kondracke does. Like Vidal, I think that anyone who wants to use street drugs already does. My own experience and, I suspect, the experience of most young people today confirms that if you want drugs then you can easily get them.

Finally, by eliminating the whole War on Drugs effort and mentality, we can expand our approach to managing drugs to include not only street drugs but medical drugs. Our use of medical drugs is out of control. My youngest sister became addicted to OxyContin when she was given the drug by one of our nation's biggest drug pushers: her family doctor. My sister didn't drink alcohol, and she didn't smoke marijuana, but she grew to crave her pain killers. After years of struggling with her addiction, she died of an overdose about a year ago on September 5, 2008. The War on Drugs did not help my sister or the millions like her who are addicted to pain killers, tranquilizers, and sedatives pushed on them by pharmaceutical companies and doctors who are out to make a killing, literally. From my perspective, the War on Drugs has done little to improve society and has in many ways corrupted society and confused society about the real issues. Let's try a different approach, an approach based on personal freedom, personal responsibility, and common sense.

So what say you, scholars? You now have opposing points of view. So who do you favor, Kondracke or Vidal? Which side appeals to your basic values and fits your own experiences? You've heard my values and experience, now share yours.
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