In the last two years, it’s been tempting to preemptively celebrate the end of the war on drugs. Consider that more than five years ago, only libertarians, the occasional radical leftists, or politicians named Ron Paul were seriously talking about the need to end this disastrous policy.
Now suddenly recreational marijuana is newly legal in two U.S. states, the House has voted to restrict the Drug Enforcement Administration from going after medical medical marijuana in the 22 states (plus DC) where it’s legal, and mainstream politicians are fighting over who can seem the most relaxed about legal weed (admittedly, with plenty of exceptions).
Nevertheless, the urge to pack it in, say “job well done,” and assume that social progress will roll in the direction of ending the war on drugs is a dangerous one.
It’s dangerous not just because of the countless people imprisoned for consensual drug crimes who are still filling our prisons to bursting. And not just because we still haven’t legally won on marijuana, even though 38 percent of Americans admit to having tried it, and a majority has supported its legalization since last year.
The “mission accomplished” mentality is really dangerous because the hard part is still ahead. Reformers will soon have to press on to legalizing the harder, more dangerous drugs as well.
This is one reason why though the relative safety of marijuana — though be careful with that dosage, Ms. Dowd — is relevant, it’s far from the only important issue in the war on drugs. After all, taking the logic that safety is the concern, we could argue, as Slate’s Reihan Salam recently did, that “the war on booze deserves a second chance” since alcohol is more dangerous than weed.
This is one reason the conversation about legalization must not get bogged down in statistical calculations of danger. Yes, weed is relatively safe. Its schedule one classification helps prove the utter cluelessness of folks who profess to know enough to ban something for an entire nation. But even a scientifically rigorous prohibition on substances is morally reprehensible and will have the same kinds of predictable, bad effects that any kind of baseless government action will.
Consider the recent media and public outrage over the Georgia drug raid during which a 19-month-old toddler was critically burned when police threw a flashbang grenade into his playpen. The no-knock raid performed by the Habersham County Sheriff’s Department and the Cornelia Police Department was over the alleged sale of a small amount of meth by the nephew of the Phonesavanh family who had moved into their relative’s home after theirs burned down two months previous.
After little Bounkham Phonesavanh was sent to the hospital and put into a medically-induced coma thanks to these cops, Cornelia Police Chief Rick Darby swore they didn’t know a child was in the house. They protested that would have done things differently had they known. They also didn’t realize that the subject of their search wasn’t even there when they busted in the door.
Wanis Thonetheva, 30, had hours before supposedly sold meth to an informant. (Thonetheva was later arrested with an ounce of meth on him, so that seems probable for once.) For anyone else besides a police officer performing a no-knock raid, this excuse would be an embarrassment. What made police believe that a few hours was enough time between the alleged meth sale and the 3 a.m. door-kick to be sure nobody innocent would be endangered during the raid? Do they not know children exist?
On the other hand, for a drug war action, “we didn’t know” is just as reasonable as anything else. After all, if killing innocent adults, endangering your fellow officers, and destroying 500 years of English common law isn’t enough for a line to be drawn, why should simple toddler maiming be such an outrage? This isn’t weed we’re talking about, this is “not even once” meth.
The majority of the drug war’s focus for decades was marijuana, by virtue of it being the most commonly used drug. If the complete butchering of civil liberties — some of which were engrained in dangerous Supreme Court decision — was worth it for weed, now something stuffy New York Times columnists can admit doing not in their wanton youth, but recently!, surely it’s still worth it for a much more dangerous and addictive substance.
Unless, that is, we have an overriding principle and an understanding of how humans react to prohibitions that would make us reconsider every having such a policy against any drug, no matter how ill-advised its use.
Another substance more hazardous to your health than pot is so-called synthetic weed, which after years of casual sales in stores finally began provoking DEA crackdowns in the last year or so. Synthetic drugs were entirely ignored by the DEA until 2008.
Why would the curious user pick an unknown substance with unknown side effects over weed, which can’t do anything worse than cause some seriously unpleasant paranoia? Because weed is illegal, and its synthetic cousin could be purchased at the mall.
The ban on weed has instead of stopping people from experimenting often simply pushed them into trying a worse substance that was not yet on the prohibitionists’ radar. Crackdowns on weed also seem to have pushed soldiers during Vietnam towards heroin instead of pot, and as later national policy helped cause the coke boom of the 1980s. Lately it has been posited that the increase in heroin use can be tied to law enforcement crackdowns on prescription drug use.
Government actions have unforeseen — yet oddly predictable — effects. Who would have guessed?
People say we have to legalize incrementally. But the fear of seemingly endorsing harmful drugs has prevented harm reduction for years.
Debates over heroin’s legal status briefly came up after the overdose of the painfully talented actor Philip Seymour Hoffman in February. A comfortable Hollywood type may not have had the same fear of arrest that your average user of heroin might, but could anyone argue that its prohibition helped him in any way? Or helped family or friends who might have wished for someone to call, without fear of law enforcement?
It’s shockingly callous that we accept any laws which discourage people from getting help for fear of legal repercussions. That acceptance may be slowly crumbling, at last. In the meantime people will continue to die, or rot in prison. And so we should push hard on sweeping end to the war on drugs, and not just coast on the joys of legal Colorado pot.
Certainly many drugs are dangerous, particularly for people who don’t know what they’re getting into. However, every single bad thing about drugs and drug abuse exists still. National policy has just placed a $25 billion a year disaster on top of that. When we’re throwing out marijuana laws, we should push hard to toss the rest of this misguided war as well.