I know a lot about drugs and the drug war, both personally and professionally. Drugs have had a positive and a detrimental impact on my life. I have laughed, played and found inspiration while intoxicated. I have also struggled, fought and cried because of my addiction to drugs.
I have spent the last six years working for an organization that is working to reform drug laws. I have read thousands of newspapers articles, had thousands of conversations and spent thousands of days thinking about drugs. What follows are the top 10 ( plus one ) things I have learned from my immersion with drugs and the drug war.
1. Drugs are everywhere. Despite a $ billion a year "war on drugs" and political speeches about a "drug-free society," our society is swimming in drugs. Cigarettes, sugar, alcohol, marijuana, prosac, Ritalin, Viagra, steroids and caffeine. The vast majority of Americans use drugs on a regular basis. People always have and always will.
2. Different people have different relationships with different drugs. My wife is someone who can enjoy an occasional cigarette and only smokes when she drinks. I am an addict who cannot control my cigarette problem. If I have one cigarette, I will end up smoking a pack a day. Some people have serious problems with alcohol and can't enjoy even a single drink. I can handle alcohol and enjoy a drink or two some nights, leave it alone on others, and I rarely have negative experiences with it. Different strokes for different folks.
3. People use drugs for joy and for pain. Many people enjoy using mind- and body-altering substances. How many of us enjoy having some drinks and going out dancing? How many of us enjoy a little smoke after a nice dinner with friends? Many people bond with others or find inspiration alone while high on drugs.
On the flip side, many people self-medicate to try to ease the pain in their lives. How many have us have had too much to drink to drown our sorrows over a breakup or some other painful event? How many of us smoke cigarettes to deal with anxiety or stress?
4. Drug abuse does not discriminate, but our drug policies do. Rush Limbaugh, Noelle Bush and Patrick Kennedy remind us that drug addiction does not discriminate. Unfortunately, our drug policies do. Ninety-three percent of the people incarcerated under New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws are black or Latino, despite equal drug use among blacks and whites. Treatment for the privileged, jail for the poor.
5. Relapse happens. Anyone who has tried to quit cigarettes knows that relapse happens. I have unsuccessfully tried to quit cigarettes 15 times. While we know that drug treatment is more humane and more effective than prison, it is not a silver bullet. Many people will quit, relapse and need support to quit again.
6. Smoking five cigarettes is better than smoking 20. Using marijuana is better than using heroin. Many well-intentioned people think drugs are terrible and abstinence is always the answer. I believe that progress can be made, even if someone continues to use drugs. My 70-year-old landlord is a pack-a-day smoker. After some serious health problems, he is now down to smoking two cigarettes a day. This is progress. Some people who have struggled with heroin have been able to quit heroin, but still use marijuana. Our criminal justice system and many in the abstinence-only treatment world would view this as a failure and send the marijuana smoker to jail. I say congrats on giving up heroin. Keep it up.
7. Drug abuse is bad, but the drug war is worse. Locking someone up in a cage for using marijuana or some other drug when no harm has been done to anyone else is cruel and inhumane. People who prohibit clean syringes to reduce the spread of HIV have blood on their hands. Denying financial aid to students who have a drug offense is counterproductive. Many of our country's laws are more harmful than the substances they are trying to combat.
8. Prohibition doesn't work. Prohibition is responsible for most of the violence associated with drugs. We tried to prohibit alcohol in the 1920s. It did not get rid of alcohol, but it did create a black market for hooch, and empowered and enriched violent gangsters like Al Capone. Marijuana and cocaine are not responsible for the drug war shootouts. What is responsible is the fact that both are worth more than gold because they are illegal. It is the underground trade of these drugs that causes people to kill each other over the right to sell them. No one is shooting anyone else over a Budweiser anymore.
9. Drugs and the drug war touch most families. Almost every family in America has to deal with drug addiction or the war on drugs. Millions of people have a loved one behind bars on drug charges. Many millions more have struggled themselves or have a loved one who has dealt with addiction to illegal or legal drugs. By declaring a "war on drugs" we have declared a war on ourselves.
10. We have to learn how to live with drugs, because they aren't going anywhere. The drug war has been waged over the last 30 years. Currently we have 500,000 people behind bars on drug charges. We spend $ billion a year, and despite the decades of war, incarceration rates and money spent, drugs are as plentiful as ever and easily accessible. We have to accept that drugs have been around for thousands of years and will be here for thousands more. We need to educate people about the possible harm from drug use, offer compassion and treatment to people who have problems and leave in peace the people who are causing harm to no one.
*Bonus point: The public is ahead of the politicians. The majority of Americans supports treatment instead of incarceration. Californian voters passed Proposition 36 in 2000. Since its passage, more than 60,000 people have received treatment instead of jail for their nonviolent drug offenses. Eleven states have approved medical marijuana for sick and dying patients. It is the timid politicians who are resistant to change. We need to continue to demonstrate to our leaders that we want an end to the war on our families. If the people lead, the leaders will follow.
Author: Tony Newman
Note: Tony Newman is communications director for the Drug Policy