(In Parade magazine (7/16/95), Carroll O'Connor wrote about the recent drug-related suicide of his son, and speculated on solutions to the drug problem in the U.S. This letter was prompted by his request for the ideas of other people. A follow-up article in Parade on 2/18/96, used a very small excerpt of the following letter).
July 26, 1995
P.O. Box 5099
Grand Central Station
New York, NY 10163-5099
Dear Mr. O'Connor,
I'm sorry about the death of your son. If the debate that you suggest prevents other such tragic deaths, then his loss will not have been in vain.
You sincerely asked what can be done about our drug problem -- a problem that has defied solution despite our government having spent approximately $150 billion on it over the past ten years. The goal of the War on Drugs is a drug free society; its strategy is to incarcerate anyone caught using or selling drugs that are illegal. As a result, 1.5 million people are currently in federal, state, or local prisons mostly for drug offenses. Yet the problem persists.
But what exactly is the problem? If a drug free society truly is the goal, then considerably more money needs to be spent, and magnitudes more people need to be jailed. It is estimated that 40 million people in the U.S. have used illicit drugs in the past year. A perfect "war" would then raise our prison population to 41.5 million people -- an inconceivable solution.
But suppose that the problem is redefined. Rather than a crime, suppose drug abuse is considered to be a medical problem and treated accordingly. Suppose that anyone with an addiction problem could visit a physician, and be given a pharmaceutically pure grade of the addictive drug. Here, they could either be seeking treatment to break the addiction, or simply seeking more drugs. In either case, little or nothing would be charged because funding would come from a small portion of the almost $15 billion currently spent on the drug war each year.
If the drug abuser is seeking treatment, then a problem is being addressed because someone with a medical problem is receiving medical treatment. If the drug abuser is seeking only a "fix", a problem is still being addressed. The abuser is getting a substance whose purity and concentration are known, thus avoiding overdoses and contamination; drug related crime is essentially eliminated because the government now controls and distributes these drugs at little or no cost, removing all the profit from the underground market; and the abuser is seeing a physician regularly, rather than only in the case of emergencies.
Contrary to popular beliefs, most substances currently classified as illegal have little negative effect even if used long term. Dr. W. S. Halsted, one of the founders of Johns Hopkins Medical Center, was addicted to morphine until his death at age 70. He was married for thirty-two years, was respected by his colleagues, and enjoyed good health despite the addiction.
Health problems develop as side effects to contaminants, unknown concentration, generally poor nutrition, and lack of regular medical attention. Eliminate these and you still have an addicted person, but one who is neither a burden on society, nor a danger to themselves. Instead, you have a person capable of contributing to society.
I doubt that your first suggestion of selective arrests and increased interdiction will work. It still treats the problem as a crime and doesn't affect the enormous profits available for the unending supply of replacements for arrested drug suppliers. Use of the military is conceivable only if our Bill of Rights is canceled -- something that the current drug war is slowly accomplishing.
I disagree with your second suggestion of creating a new power of arrest for the same reason. By eliminating the profit, the criminal aspect is eliminated, and more arrests become unnecessary. I sincerely believe that the problem is medical and not criminal. It is currently criminal only because of bureaucratic posturing that started in the early 1900's.
Your third and fourth suggestions of education and discussion hopefully will lead to the realization that the Drug War is wasting billions of dollars and millions of lives solving a criminal problem that this "war" created and exaggerated, not the medical problem that actually exists.
John L. Ferri