Published on
the Bangor Daily News (Maine)

Reflections on Local Drug Wars

The front page of my local weekly newspaper, the Bar Harbor Times, has two intriguing stories. The selectmen in one of the towns on the island where I live are debating the contribution of funds for an anti- drug task force for our county. Advocates acknowledge that consumption of drugs can be reduced through treatment, but they maintain that the focus at the local level must be on law-enforcement. Another front-page article reports the results of the annual Maine Youth Drug and Alcohol Use Survey. Twenty percent of our local students report recent instances of binge drinking and about a third admit to using marijuana. Before Maine or other states and local governments spend scarce resources imprisoning more consumers -- or even pushers -- of cocaine and heroin, they ought to consider the contribution previous drug wars have made to current addictions.

Binge drinking and marijuana use persist in spite of years of draconian legal intervention. Nationally, marijuana use has remained relatively constant over the last decade despite a doubling of arrests. One result of these arrests, however, has been to make other consciousness- enhancing substances seem more attractive and less costly.

Long convinced that the best way to stop drug use among U.S. citizens was to interdict the supply, the U.S. government has forced Colombia to stamp out drug production. These efforts create perverse incentives. One Latin American scholar has commented that "black-market prices are far higher than the price would be in a legal market, but not high enough to discourage millions of drug users from shopping in the black market... Throughout the market system the enormous profitability finances criminal organizations, spurs often-violent competition for market share, provides billions of dollars to bribe ill-paid law enforcement forces and ensures that new producers and traffickers will readily step forward to replace those who are taken down."

U.S. drug policy now reaps what it sows. Seeking to explain a heroin epidemic in New England, The Boston Globe recently commented: "Extremely pure and cheap Colombian heroin, imported directly to Boston, has fueled the regional epidemic. Karen Tandy, administrator of the US Drug Enforcement Administration, said drug traffickers have found ways to transport heroin directly from Colombia and Mexico to Boston, bypassing the traditional entry point of New York City. 'You might as well be sitting on the border of Colombia in this Northeast region,’ Tandy said.”

The modern prohibitionists now conclude that if the supply cannot be cut off, demand must be eliminated. Once again they turn to the law. Yet criminalizing consumption and distribution here has the same effects as in Colombia. Criminalization increases the risks of use and distribution but enhances the rewards. As any student of Milton Friedman can tell you, if economic incentives present themselves, some entrepreneurs will be willing to enter the market.

Drug addiction is a human tragedy. I understand why my friends and neighbors feel obliged to do something. I saw my mother, whose father was a leading business executive and Prohibitionist in the 1920s, die from alcohol poisoning in her 50s. At one point I tried to have her confined to a hospital against her will, a decision that failed to help her and about which I still feel guilt.

Today, more of us acknowledge that alcoholism is a disease, whereas we still treat addiction to heroin as a major personality flaw. We regard those penny- ante pushers of heroin and cocaine, often addicts desperately in need of funds to support their own habits, as criminals, even as we hardly raise our eyebrows about the deceptive and manipulative techniques employed by the marketers of legal prescription and recreational drugs.

Heroin and cocaine still have a social stigma that has been at least partially lifted in the case of alcohol. Yet for all three substances, the only effective answer to addiction and to the crime associated with funding one's habits is honest education and treatment. Yet even for alcohol, our educational efforts are distorted and our goal, abstinence, utterly unrealistic. The absurdly terrifying messages our government disseminates regarding marijuana are contradicted by a whole range of peer reviewed studies, many of which were funded by the government itself.

Worse still, as few as one in six who need treatment for dangerous addictions are able to obtain that treatment. One resident of northern Maine recently wrote me: "My younger brother committed suicide this summer after being addicted to heroin for less than one year. I feel quite strongly that if there had been more treatment available to him, he may not have felt that ending his life was his only option. He was also afraid to ask for any help that may have been available due to the stigma of addiction."

Treatment of course, as in the case of cancer or heart disease, is not always effective and recidivism occurs. Yet we don't incarcerate cardiac patients who forsake their diet or exercise regimes. Personal and social costs would be minimized if public health authorities could simply provide currently illegal substances to incurable addicts. No one wants to become an addict and such an agenda would hardly lead to dramatic increases in the number of chemically incapacitated citizens.

Beefed- up local drug task forces may apprehend a few users and neighborhood suppliers, but these prosecutions will have little lasting effect on community drug use patterns. Some will be caught up their incarceration is likely to do more to harm the social ecology of our communities been to deter most potential users. Many of our current drug wars seem to a down little more than to alter the drug of choice, often for the worse. Those caught up in law enforcement will likely have few chances for rehabilitation and will return to society much the worse for their experience. And hundreds of thousands of dollars from limited government resources that might have been spent on treatment and rehabilitation will have been squandered.

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John Buell

John Buell

John Buell has a PhD in political science, taught for 10 years at College of the Atlantic, and was an Associate Editor of The Progressive for ten years. He lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His most recent book, published by Palgrave in August 2011, is "Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age." He may be reached at

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