Decriminalize illegal drugs


Drugs, the fuel that ignites most criminal activity, spreads like a plague through the streets and neighborhoods of America’s cities. Billions are spent each year on diffuse and overlapping drug education, treatment and law enforcement programs to no avail. The escalating wave of drug-induced violence requires a radical change from our misdirected and failed anti-drug war strategy.

Few cities compare with Detroit, for example, and its battle against heroin, crack and crime. Young people are indiscriminately gunned down on street corners as dealers carve out turf. Barricaded homes are seldom enough protection for the terrified, innocent and the elderly against cunning addicts intent on securing cash for the next fix. Upward of 80 percent of homicide victims die with drugs in their bodies.

Yet drugs are prevalent in urban cores not by some insidious conspiracy, but by invitation. Willing customers with voracious appetites demand a product that is easily available and cheaply purchased.

Crack cocaine is one of the more addictive. Relapse is almost inevitable from use of the “fast food” of drugs. Ninety percent of addicts drop out of treatment programs within weeks, if not days.

One agonizing aspect of illegal drug peddling is the great toll it extracts on black populations. Blacks are overwhelmingly the majority of those arrested and jailed. As users and crime victims, they represent the bulk of cocaine overdoses, drug-related medical problems and crack-addicted babies who flood hospital emergency rooms.

Interdiction efforts are futile or rarely move from planning to implementation. Busting drug houses showcase piles of cocaine, marijuana and other contraband as a prop for news conferences, but do little to stem the drug flow. And it’s folly to think that “just say no” and more treatment programs can curb usage, dependency or violence.

It makes no sense to clog prisons with street-level dealers or drug lords, except for those involved in the violent aspects of the trade. The demand and the profits are so great that merchants at every level are replaced as quickly as they are taken out of circulation.

The insidious nature of the violence has prompted calls – in some circles– for escalation of the drug war with all the risks a heightened crackdown entails. Civil libertarians will vigorously oppose the unleashing of law enforcement. Restraint, however, rings hollow to people who are denied their civil rights by the extraordinary moral decadence drugs heap on their communities.

The Prohibition Era, and the emergence of vicious mobs that controlled the trafficking of illegal liquor, are proof that government lacks the weapons to end the violence or control the tsunami of intoxicants demanded by the masses. A drug market, after all, requires both buyers and sellers.

But for decades, few have been willing to revisit the possibility that drug prohibition increases crime while doing little about addiction.

It’s time to gracefully withdraw from this war zone. Even a strategic shift toward decriminalization will be unsettling to those who fear that legalizing drugs will produce a population of zombies. It’s difficult, though, to imagine drugs being more accessible if legal than they are today. And giving addicts cheap and easy access will at least stem the fatalities associated with sales.

The imperative of retreat is validated by undeniable soul-wrenching conclusions: drugs are a major commercial enterprise. The chances of rehabilitating an AK-47-toting drug merchant are remote. People hell-bent on risking their lives to make money aren’t easily dissuaded by prison or death. And people intent on “getting high” will – on something homegrown, imported or the latest designer chemical cooked in a lab.

There are no easy choices. We could choose to reject tougher enforcement measures and endure more drug-related violence. We could concede that drugs are as American as apple pie and “say yes” to exchanging legal narcotics for a bit more tranquility. Whatever high bounty we choose, it will not be without casualties and collateral damage in one form or another.

For me, legalization is the path of least resistance.


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