Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Quick Watson, the Needle

- Barbara D'Amato

A few weeks ago a group of Chicago police officers were pulled off duty for keeping the drugs they confiscated from arrestees and reselling them—the drugs, not the arrestees. Probably nobody wanted to buy the arrestees.

I’m not criticizing the CPD. Most police officers do a good job and a good cop is pure gold to all of us. It’s sad that drugs are so portable, so profitable, and maybe even to these cops, constitute such a victimless crime.

Crime writers make use constantly of drugs as plot elements—motivation, solution, even simply to characterize a person as a bad guy. It was not always so. Watson did not despise Holmes.

What if we decriminalized drugs? Well, we might achieve this--

Save the billions—yes, billions—that are spent on police, the DEA, prisons, border interdiction, and so on. Maybe this money could be spent on treatment. Or maybe even schools.

Eliminate deaths from adulterated drugs.

Eliminate a LOT of crime. Cop friends tell me that three-quarters of the arrests they make are drug related.

Eviscerate drug cartels and drug-related criminal enterprises.

Protect the thousands of people who will be mugged for drug money.

Make the kids who now “earn” a couple of hundred dollars a day as lookouts think seriously about getting a job.

End the “Amwayization” of drug use. I wish I knew who first came up with this word. It means, of course, that when a person gets a habit he has to go out and convert others to sell to so that he can support his habit.

But, you say, you know people whose lives have been ruined by drugs. Me too, but very frequently by legal drugs. The advantage legal drugs have is that they can be monitored. How about spreading that benefit? In any case, let’s be clear here. Everyone you or I know of who has a problem with drugs has developed that problem under the present laws. Is it possible the laws cause the problem? Two very powerful forces are operating—Amwayization, as mentioned above, and the forbidden fruit syndrome. I would really prefer a world in which children would not feel their normal need to rebel would be served by using drugs.

How bad would decriminalization be? Nobody knows. But in Peru, coca growers are permitted to grow a certain amount for their own use. Coca leaves are brewed as a stimulating drink, somewhat like the way we use coffee and tea. What is a drug, anyway? In some parts of the world, coffee is illegal.


Some good reading:

The economist Milton Friedman wrote a lot about decriminalization. An economic conservative, he was nevertheless in favor of what seems a radical notion. See The War We Are Losing, Hoover Institute Press, 1991. Or Stop Taxing Non-Addicts, Reason Magazine, October 1988, or an interview with him in Newsweek May 1, 1972.

Howard Becker, a well-known sociologist, has had a lot to say about what kind of substances we choose to call drugs. See, for instance, “Drugs: What Are They?” in Aiglet:Atlanta, 2001. He has numerous other articles on the subject. Elsewhere he makes the point that when stronger forms of mind-altering substances arrive in a culture, people don’t know how to use it and it destroys people for a while. Think Hogarth’s Gin Lane. He predicted that people would learn to use the substances that appeared in the sixties more safely, and he was generally right. Stronger forms of a drug are developed, among other reasons, so that they can be hidden in smaller spaces and transported easily.


Raymond M. said...

Ms. D'Amato,

I'm assuming that you have not watched The Wire on HBO. (Created and produced by David Simon, the author of the non fiction book that the TV show Homicide: Life on the Streets was based on. In addition, authors Richard Price, Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos are part of its writing staff)

In the third season, which aired about two years ago, there was a plotline about a Major in the Baltimore Police Department who was about six months from retirement when he decided to effectively create "Red Light Areas" where the selling of drugs would be ignored. However drug laws would be strictly enforced everywhere else in the district.

These areas, which were called "Hamsterdam" by the street dealers were located in vacant neighbourhoods in his district.

The result of this de facto decriminalization of drugs was a general reduction in crime in the district overall. However, conditions in Hamsterdam itself were hellish and Dionysian.

Not that I am arguing against decriminalization, per se. As a Canadian criminal defence lawyer, I do think that the use of drugs is more of a health issue as opposed to a criminal one. I honestly don't know the answer. I merely raise The Wire to play devil's advocate and to stimulate discussion.

Sean Chercover said...

And then there's the unpleasant fact that we imprison more of our citizens than any other "free" nation on earth - and a huge percentage of those are incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses.

America's drug problem (and yes, there is a problem) has been made much worse by the so-called "war on drugs". Did we not learn anything from prohibition?

It's time for a differnet (sane) approach to the problem. I know a lot of cops who agree, but can't say so in public. Thanks, Barb.

Sara Paretsky said...

Barbara, I think this whole issue is complex, as Raymond M said, but legalizing sales would take the motive for astronomical profits out of the underworld, and remove one big reason for gang turf wars. My godmother worked for many years as an addictions counselor, though, and never favored legalization, because of the deep and lasting damage these drugs do, so I've never been able to know how to think about it. One thing though, I absolutely agree with Sean:we could treat every addict in america 10 times over for what we spend putting them behind bars!

Michael Dymmoch said...

I disagree with Raymond.

Legalization won't work piecemeal--for the reasons illustrated on THE WIRE. A similar experiment was tried with legalizing prostitution in Boston in 1974. The result: Once word got out, hookers moved to Boston from all over the world, and the hooker population rose from 1 - 3 hookers/block to 150/block. Cutthroat competition (literally) and other crime also increased.

The same thing has not happened in Nevada, where prostitution is legal statewide. (Although I understand Las Vegas, where prostitution is prohibited, still has plenty of hookers and the crime associated with them in other states.)

In addition to the points Barb made, legalizing drugs would decrease the number of drug-created felons that taxpayers end up supporting because no one but Mayor Daley wants to employ them.

I say legalize 'em, regulate 'em, and tax 'em (as we do alcohol and nicotine, two of the most dangeros drugs out there). It might help eliminate the national debt.

For more on the unintended effects of well-intentioned prohibition, check out: PROHIBITION: THE LIE OF THELAND, 1981.
by Sean Dennis Cashman.

Rob in Denver said...

While I agree that decriminalization needs to happen on a wider scale for most drug offenses, it doesn't erase the public health issues that would, I believe, likely result.

The garden variety junkie isn't known to have reliable sources of income, which makes things like adequate shelter, a steady diet and getting health care difficult.

Subsidizing those things has very real monetary and societal costs, too.

And the criminal element associated with drug abuse won't necessarily evaporate, either. Decriminalization may, in fact, reduce in violent crime among dealers and other people who control the traffic.

But, getting back to the garden variety junkie for a second, we'll still see a fair amount of petty and property crime among said users so they can make money to score. I assume drugs will continue to cost money under any legalization/decriminalization scenario.

These aren't easy questions. The answers will prove to be more difficult to find.

Nice post!

Barbara D'Amato said...

These are great responses. I just wish this country could engage in an honest, frank discussion of the drug problem.

To Raymond M. --No, I didn't see The Wire. I wish I had. I agree with Michael that decriminalization won't work piecemeal. If we're going to try it, we need to do it in a full court press way.

Sean--it's the people who are incarceated, as you say, for non-violent offenses who are so sad. We need to be very careful about what we criminalize. Prisons teach more and better criminality. Just because we don't like a behavior doesn't mean we ought to make it a crime.

Sara--yes, we'd have enormous amounts of money to treat addicts if we pulled it out of policing. I also wonder how many addicts get worse and worse because they're scared to go for treatment and give away the fact that they've been involved in crime. Many don't seek treatment until they are half dead.

Rob--I suppose drugs would still cost money, but a lot of the present cost is overhead for illegal manufacture and transport and payoffs. Maybe also there could be a reasonable maintenance dose provided at clinics.