An opinion piece published in the Cincinnati Enquirer 13 September 2012 titled , “Lives Irrevocably Changed” written by Charlotte Wethington, cites the death during a robbery committed by a young heroin addict who was killed by the homeowner during the robbery. The author goes on to state that heroin was the cause of the man’s death. As terrible as this man’s death is it is more likely that our official policy of total prohibition had more to do with the young man’s death than the heroin itself.
The turn of the century policy of total prohibition and criminal possession, that one is a criminal for simply possessing a substance, leaves no option but the total destruction of the addict in order to save him. We have been pursuing this policy since 1914 when Congress passed the Harrison Act, which at the time was the Federal Government’s first foray into national drug control. The Act was a response to opium addiction and the influx of Chinese workers in the western states. It was designed to end the scourge of addiction and control the use of drugs with criminal sanctions and was touted as responding to international obligations rather than citizen drug use. It also ended a Physicians ability to provide maintenance doses to addicts till they could get into treatment. The original intent of the law was to ensure the orderly marketing of narcotics but it’s provisions were interpreted as a total prohibition. The effect was the withdrawal of any medical support for those suffering from addiction and the flourishing of an underground narcotics market. At that time in our history roughly 1.3% of the citizens were considered to be addicted to drugs.
Marijuana was included in the mix in 1937 after a propaganda campaign by the Hearst Newspaper Group and the Federal Government championed by then Drug Czar Harry Anslinger. Like the Harrison Act the Marijuana Tax Stamp Act had it’s constitutionality rooted in Federal tax law. It required a person to have a tax stamp to possess marijuana but to get the stamp you had to have the marijuana in your possession which means you had already broken the law! The Government only printed a limited number of stamps because they weren’t going to issue them anyway. At this time 1.3% of the citizens were estimated to be addicted to drugs.
The 1937 Marijuana Tax Stamp Act was declared unconstitutional in 1969 which resulted in the Controlled Substances Act. This legislation was enacted to correct weaknesses in the 1937 law and like it’s predecessor is designed to never be questioned or challenged. In 1974 President Nixon appointed the Shafer Commission to look into our drug policies. Their report concluded that drug addiction and abuse is a medical problem and not a criminal one, and that it should be handled as such, was not well received by the President. He ignored the recommendations of his own commission and doubled down on the policy of prohibition by declaring the War on Drugs. Citizen addiction rates were in 1974 the same as they were 56 years earlier in 1914, 1.3%.
Eleven years ago Portugal ended criminal possession by decriminalizing all drugs and replacing their, “War on Drugs”, with a system of treatment for problem users and addicts. The result as of today is a 50% reduction in addiction rates, not only due to decriminalization but also to a combination of harm reduction policies and treatment.
Most of the death and destruction witnessed every day in our towns and cities arising around drugs and drug abuse is a direct result of our policy for handling this problem.
Today as we agonize over another young man’s death we must pause and consider whether or not we should continue the failed policy of prohibition as the proper response to drug abuse and addiction. We have pursued this policy now for 98 years and not one of those years can be claimed as a success. The current addiction rate is 1.3% exactly as it was when prohibition started in 1914.
The time has come for our politicians to recognize this failure, stop using the plight of sick addicts to further their careers and take positive action to end this destructive policy and create a system that will realistically respond to the problem of drug abuse and addiction in America.