Sunday, November 30, 2008

Tangled roots

There were a couple of op-eds in today’s Charleston Gazette that discussed the proposed consolidation of the city of Charleston WV with the surrounding county, Kanawha. This “metro consolidation,” as it’s known, is peripherally related to what we’ve been trying to do here in Hampshire County, in that it’s an effort by local citizens to change the form of their local government. But they’re using a different legal mechanism than we are.

The first op-ed I read was a straightforward look at the process of consolidation itself by a local state senator. The second piece was written by a Baptist minister, and primarily discussed a specific issue that metro consolidation should address—substance abuse—because, according to the author, it’s an issue that’s at the root of virtually all of the Charleston metro region’s social problems, from crime to domestic violence.

I don’t think there’s any doubt that alcohol or drug abuse is a major component in many of American society’s problems. But as I read the column, with its typically punitive tone, I was increasingly bothered by the fact that it was only talking about treating a symptom of America’s social disease, without acknowledging that symptom’s underlying causes.

There was no questioning of why, after thirty-plus years of a “war on drugs” and ubiquitous anti-alcohol government propaganda, America continues to lead the world in substance abuse problems. There was no mention of underlying economic or cultural phenomena that may explain why Americans would want to take the national flight from reality a distinctly individual step further. On the unending question of which came first, chicken or egg, the preacher/author (no doubt a creationist) had, with fundamentalist certitude, chosen the chicken. Another drug warrior raises the flag.

What is so disturbing about this well-conditioned knee-jerk response to the problem of substance abuse, apart from its intellectual laziness, is that, in the end, it only contributes to extending the life of the problem.

A few days ago, the Los Angeles Times published an article about a recent Brookings Institution report, which says unequivocally, “The US war on drugs has failed.” From the article:

“The report, which is the work of Brookings' Partnership for the Americas Commission, offers especially pointed criticism of the way the drug war has been waged.Contrary to government claims, the use of heroin and cocaine in the U.S. has not declined significantly, the report says, and the use of methamphetamine is spreading. Falling street prices suggest that the supply of narcotics has not declined noticeably, and U.S. prevention and treatment programs are woefully underfunded, the study says."Current U.S. counter- narcotics policies are failing by most objective standards," the report says. "The only long-run solution to the problem of illegal narcotics is to reduce the demand for drugs in the major consuming countries, including the United States."

Following the establishment practice of continuing to keep the drug problem in the criminal justice domain, however, the Brookings Institution’s recommendations step only gingerly in the direction of decriminalization. The LAT article continues, “The report urges the U.S. to take responsibility for stemming the transport of an estimated 2,000 guns a day across the border; to expand drug prevention programs in schools and redirect anti-drug messages to younger people by emphasizing cosmetic damage as well as health risks; and to greatly enhance drug courts, a system that incorporates treatment into prosecution.”

I love that last phrase, “a system that incorporates treatment into prosecution.” Obviously, there won’t be any mainstream discussion of treatment outside the context of prosecution. And this is the very discussion that is so lacking in our public dialogue about drugs. It is precisely this missing element that holds the key to what our current policy is all about.

For as long as the American drug war has been waged, drug policy reformers have been offering alternative approaches that emphasize treating the problem of substance abuse as primarily a public health issue. There are all kinds of reasons why this approach makes infinitely more sense than the current policy, which I won’t go into at this time.

The only point I want to make now is that we cannot analyze the failures of the war on drugs without looking at who benefits from the current policy. And we cannot see who benefits if we willfully close our eyes to the same intelligence/underworld connections that lie under every rock we overturn once we start searching for the truth of what happened in virtually every one of the last half-century’s most disturbing events, from the JFK assassination to 9/11.

Oh, it’s a tangled, drug-soaked web.

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