End the War on Drugs

This commentary is occasioned by the partial legalization of marijuana and government efforts to regulate it. But I’d like to take the occasion to look at the drug problem more broadly.

Let me start with a story. Aside from the time a neuro-opthalmologist put a drop of cocaine in my eye to test for a nerve condition, I have had drugs in my system only once. Shortly after we got married, we were at a party in the Village and were offered Alice B. Toklas brownies. I was too naïve to know what they were but boy they tasted good and I had a few too many. Then my limbs started drifting off into space and I got pretty upset. Plus I was upset with my wife who refused to call the doctor. Once I came out of it and understood what had happened, I wasn’t interested in repeating the nightmare.

In the seventies, we were offered drugs by friends. Having had that experience with the brownies, I was not about to accept their offer. But I had two other thoughts that were and are equally important to me. First, whatever drugs we accepted would undoubtedly have passed through the hands of organized crime, thieves and murderers among them. I was not about to support that pipeline. And I would have put my license as an attorney at stake if anyone had found out.

But, like the ACLU and the NYCLU, I have long supported the decriminalization of drugs.

Decriminalization is partly an opportunity to regulate to prevent drugs being cut or concentrated in dangerous ways. Medical marijuana should give us that opportunity although, at the moment, it will have to be state by state. I would try selling it in state stores the way alcohol is sold in some parts of the country.

Decriminalization is also an opportunity to take some of the money out of the criminal pipeline, to withdraw our financial support for the Mafia and other organized crime enterprises in many parts of the world that supply the American drug habit. And decriminalization will also withdraw some of the money that goes into the financial pipeline for terrorists and terrorist organizations that are also exploiting the drug trade in many parts of the world.

I understand that long term FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover, feared FBI agents would be corrupted if they policed the drug trade. Indeed police involvement in the drug trade has been reported in many communities. Decriminalization will cut off that lure to joining the underworld.

Decriminalization would help us address the process of turning people under the influence into hardened criminals. And decriminalization will help us address the negative impact of the criminal justice system on the African-American community. Whatever the reason, whether it’s stereotyping, discrimination, or the fact, as many police chiefs have described, that it’s easier to find drugs on low level users and sellers on the streets than the more lucrative but more hidden traffic into the suburbs, decriminalization will help us deal with the mass incarceration of the African-American community and the damage that does to all of us, both Black and white.

The remedy, the so-called War on Drugs, has been much more harmful than the disease.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 13, 2015.

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