Friday, March 14, 2008

Sacrificing The Effective For The Easy

In Which I Rant With Great Abandon

Last Wednesday, Time Magazine published an essay from the writers for The Wire (Ed Burns, Dennis Lehane, George Pellecanos, Richard Price and David Simon) condemning the U.S. drug policy that has given that show so much fodder. Go read it, it's short. I'll wait.

Though I don't necessarily agree with their argument that jury nullification is the way to go, I do agree with their point of view. The War On Drugs is one of the most ill conceived, badly implemented, piss-poor excuses for an actual policy that the U.S. government has ever enacted. And the reason is simple. The whole thrust of it boils down to destroying supply, rather than attacking demand.

Historically, that doesn't work. Prohibition is probably the example we're most familiar with, but if you want to dig around through the poppy fields of Afghanistan, Colombia, China (Boxer Rebellion, anyone?), you'll find a lot of examples.

It's not the supply of drugs that's the problem, it's the demand for them.

As long as a demand exists there will be a supplier. Destroying existing supplies jacks up the price, which creates more profit, which leads to more people willing to get into the supply chain. The more people in the supply chain means, you guessed it, more supply.

"But what about all the folks that are getting locked up for using?" I hear you say. "Doesn't that attack the demand?"

Well, no. That's a supply control strategy, too. The supply in this case is the users. The point of it is to destroy and shove aside the user base, rather than get the user base to change. With a strategy like that the demand will continue to exist unless you actually, you know, kill them.

If anythying, the War On Drugs has made the problem worse.

Now, I think this same thinking can be applied to other things as well. Guns and gang violence, for example. We approach the problem with a "get rid of all [fill in the blank]" mentality. If you take away guns you're not going to take away violence. The problem isn't the supply of weapons, which, let's be honest can be anything (I like an oak axe handle wrapped in barbed wire, myself), it's the desire to use them.

Thing is, attacking demand is hard. You can't track it except by its results, and it takes time for those to manifest. Changing a community's mindset, changing an addict's habits, all of these things are hard work.

Attacking supply, though, is stupid easy. Easier, certainly than trying to figure out all the reasons people want to get high in the first place, or addressing the issues that drive people into uncontrollable addiction. Easier than improving the economies of the hardest hit areas, the poverty and broken homes that sends people to look for some way to tune out. It's bullets you can check off in Power Point, numbers you can crunch to show you're tough on crime. An easy way to further your political career.

It's a policy that sacrifices the effective for the easy. It's much simpler to wrap our minds around numbers and statistics than people. That A+B=C instead of the psychological, economic and medical nuances of each individual that creates the whole cascading problem. It's the same mindset that lumps people into Us vs Them, Black vs White, Bad Guys and Good Guys. We, as a general rule, don't like to think in shades of gray. We're all so much better at stereotypes.

Of course, it's easy for me to stand up and make noise. I'm good at that. You should see me drunk at karaoke some time. I do a mean Folsom Prison Blues.

I don't have a solution, and I don't believe that just one exists. We need a critical mass of solutions that all support each other. I think we're on the right track with things like medical marijuana. It opens the conversation, gets people to accept its medicinal uses. Gets across that maybe it's not the demon drug Reefer Madness makes it out to be. Acceptance is the first step to legality.

Once it's legal I think the people who are getting into it for the taboo aspect will dip. And then if you tax it, not so much that it creates a strong black market for it, you'll pull out a lot of other people.

That's what I mean by policies that attack demand. Things that change a mindset, control the thinking in ways that aren't quite so heavy handed.

Don't get me wrong, it's not a solution, but it's a start. Chip away at all those reasons people want to do it, because there's rarely just one. We're not that simple after all.

Now, my thinking isn't to get drugs or violence off the streets. I don't think it's possible. No matter how legal something is, there's always going to be someone who can get it to you cheaper or better or tax free. There's always going to be someone who pisses you off. But if we can change enough of the thinking of enough of the people, then maybe we have a chance to turn around a stupid policy that's incarcerated 1 out of every 100 people in this nation.

And that's a tall order, I know. You have to change hearts and minds, as the Army says, and they're not exactly famed for their successes. Sometimes the hearts and minds that have to be changed are our own, because we are the policy makers, whether we choose to believe that or not. Nothing's going to change unless we make it happen.


JD Rhoades said...

Well said, Stephen.

Of course, there are so many people right now with a vested financial interest in continuing the "War on Drugs," I despair of ever seeing any sanity brought to it.

"Whadyya mean it's not working! We've locked up THOUSANDS of people! Give me more money and we'll lock up thousands more!"

Stephen Blackmoore said...

That's one of the things that worries me. Instead of decriminalizing things we're just going to add more.

It comes out of fear. Fear of gangs, fear of immigrants, fear of drugs. That's a hard thing to shift and an easy thing to use. Just look at Germany in the 30's.

And even if we do see a philosophical turnaround in this country, it's going to take a damn long time. These things change along generational lines and my generation, I'm sad to say, doesn't instill in me a lot of confidence.

JD Rhoades said...

Fear, as you pointed out, is only part of it. The bigger problem is the people who are willing to use it. Remember the ads right after 9/11 linking drugs, even marijuana with funding terrorism?

angie said...

Use/abuse/dependence on illegal substances is a complex issue. I'm not sure using an 'attack' approach is going to be all that helpful, whether at the supply end or the demand end. People throughout history have used substances and activities to alter their perceptions/moods and I don't see that changing any time soon. Is that bad, morally wrong? Not to me. Does it break my heart that some folks destroy their lives and families because of addiction? Sure, but until the individual decides s/he wants to make a change, it's all pretty much pissing in the wind.

Do I think addicts should be jailed or otherwise 'punished' for getting high? No. Do I think people, regardless of drug use should face legal measures if they engage in violent acts? Yes, absolutely.

Personally, I don't give a shit what you do to yourself in your own home. I do care if you harm another person, regardless of whether it's because you're a sex addict, drug addict, or alcoholic or just a pissed off, criminally minded 'normie.' I'm just sayin'...

Stephen Blackmoore said...

You know, Angie, it's funny. I actually considered not using the word "attack" because of its confrontational subtext, and was going to use the word "approach" instead, which brings up a whole different set of preconceived notions. I think I made the wrong choice.

I think you're absolutely right. People have always used and they're always going to use. The problem is that, as a national policy, we have placed a moral judgment on drugs.

And it's that moral judgment that needs to shift. I give a good goddamn if someone wants to get high. Knock yourself out. Hell, save some for me. As long as it's not hurting anyone else that's fine.

Where it becomes an issue isn't as much at the level of the individual user, most of whom, despite what the DEA would like you to think, aren't addicts, as it is along the supply chain.

That's where where other people are getting hurt and killed; drug mules, middle men, law enforcement, and so on. All of the different players caught up in the business.

It's the current policy that's helped create the conditions for those things to happen.

As I'm writing this, I realize that what I was actually trying to get at in this post wasn't drugs or even drug policy.

My issue is with the general approach of trying to curtail something by clamping down on it, by hitting it so hard that it goes underground. Going after the thing rather than the causes for the demand.

I used the example of violence at one point. Let me try a different one: teen pregnancy.

Telling kids not to fuck is as useful as telling the sun not to shine. But that's what abstinence programs do. They place a moral judgment on sex and go for the "Just keep it in your pants" approach.

Unsurprisingly, it doesn't work.

But if you can educate kids better and give them access to birth control, get the idea across to them that it's not sex that's the issue, but disease and pregnancy, then you might be able to reduce the instances of it.

It comes down to changing mindsets, if only a little bit. But before that can happen, the moral judgment of teens having sex (not to mention the ignorance of parents saying, "My little Suzie doesn't even know what a blowjob is, she's just trying to help the football team focus before the big game.") has to be put aside.

That's probably the first step to getting rid of these stupid policies that use a hammer to beat down the wrong problem. Get rid of the moral judgment. Let people live their lives the way they want.

Hey, I can dream, can't I?

angie said...

And it's a beautiful dream that I share.

But, y'know, the majority of peeps are so worried that someone might be doing something 'immoral' that it's unlikely to change. And yes, fear is also a huge factor here (usually fear bred of ignorance).

I'm usually a total Pollyanna about life stuff, but this is one area where the realist in me doesn't see much of a bright side - at least on a grand scale.

Wanna talk teen pregnancy? A town about 15 miles from here has a teen pregnancy rate of 9 out of 10. Let me say that again, 9 out of 10 teenage girls become pregnant BEFORE graduating high school in this community. But lord, let's make sure the sex education program is strictly abstinence based. 'Cause condoms are killin' potential babies and you shouldn't be having sex before marriage anyway, right? The worst part? Imagine how that 1 girl in 10 who doesn't get pregnant feels? Superior? Maybe, but I'd bet big bucks it's less grand than that...more like, 'Shit, what's wrong with me?'

Just say no doesn't work. Unless you really want people to say yes. In that case, good job.

pattinase (abbott) said...

As long as people need to self-medicate to get through life, we'll always been in deep shit. And when was the last time, you looked out your window and didn't want to swallow something to numb it. All of our policies are based on the idea of deprivation rather than positive change.

Living Digital Photography said...

Heck why not make drugs legal and then tax the hell out of them like they do cigarettes. Then attach a warning labels that states "Smoking pot has been known to increase hunger" or "Snorting speed has been linked to a clean house, tooth decay and sinus problems" At least then the DUI rates would rise and get those crazy drivers of the road. With all the extra taxes the government could pay for Anti-sex programs...anyway just a thought.

Midtown Miscreant said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Midtown Miscreant said...

Having served 5 years and change in the federal prison system, not drug related, I can attest to one thing with certainty, the vast majority of drug related convictions are made up of low level street dealers and users. The big fish are rarely put away, its much easier to pluck some young black guy off a street corner. The problem is that there is a constant supply of little fish to replace them. The police get the numbers and can say they are putting away the bad guys, while doing little to nothing to stem the flow.