Addicted to Abolition

The Wall Street Journal, August 5, 1998

By Sally Satel

At the turn of the last century, unrestricted access to morphine, heroin and cocaine led to a great wave of addiction in the U.S. Witnessing this devastation of people’s lives, the nation responded with antidrug laws. Somehow the simple lesson here — that drugs are dangerous — has been forgotten by many of our nation’s elites. Mike Gray’s “Drug Crazy” (Random House, 251 pages, $23.95) is the product of such selective memory.

Mr. Gray, a film producer, makes the claim that the harms produced by drug prohibition are worse than the hazards of the drugs themselves. Yet his book is so lopsided that it fails to persuade. This is not to say that the “drug war” is being waged in the best way. Indeed, many drugs today are accessible, cheap and potent, not a good advertisement for current interdiction efforts. But Mr. Gray’s angry, anecdote-driven account is hardly the best place to look for reform.

Most of the book catalogs drug-war excesses: abuses of police power, corruption, gang violence, paranoid officials. The author uses them as reason to abolish our drug laws. “The black market must be underbid.” Mr. Gray writes, “If that means drugs have to be given away to serious addicts, so be it. Anyone who is determined to use heroin regardless of consequences must be able to get the stuff from a legitimate source at a price that doesn’t require stealing car radios.”

This is typical of the harm-reduction philosophy Mr. Gray advocates: Since addicts will be addicts, let’s make it easier on them and our car radios. In other words, give them the means of their own destruction and leave the taxpayer to pick up the pieces.

Making drug control work better by reducing demand — perhaps our best hope — isn’t even an option for Mr. Gray. Apart from denigrating the D.A.R.E. program (a nationwide school-based education program) and calling for fewer restrictions on methadone, he virtually ignores prevention and treatment. He sees addicts as victims of everything but the drugs they abuse. For example, he blames the recent increase in heroin overdoses on the prohibitionists’ scare tactics: “Cool Gen X-ers knew from experience that government claims about marijuana were exaggerated, so they assumed the grown-ups were lying about heroin as well.” More likely the deaths were due to batches of extremely high-purity drug.

Mr. Gray is adamant that prohibition must go, and he packs into each chapter stories of corruption and brutality that would make even the toughest drug hawk cringe. But in his zeal to legalize drugs, he slights the facts. He claims that the nation’s current homicide rate is a function of prohibition, yet in a graph he presents the years 1951-55 have the century’s lowest rate, even though drug laws then were harsher than now. Nor is mention made of property crime and burglary (the hallmarks of drug use in the ’60s and ’70s), which have been on a steady decline over the past two decades under the very laws Mr. Gray condemns.

Mr. Gray blames society’s negative attitudes about addicts, whom he calls “unfortunate citizens,” on the federal Harrison Anti-Narcotics Act of 1914. Yet the Harrison Act was simply the culmination of two decades of efforts to pass antidrug legislation. Indeed, the 1914 law did not demonize addicts; they had turned popular sentiment against themselves. As early as 1892, Sir William Osler’s celebrated medical textbook called morphine addicts “inveterate liars…not confined to matters relating to the vice.”

The final chapter, “Prescription for Sanity,” is more rhetoric than practical advice. It features a post-prohibition agenda that is vague except for one sure thing: In the world according to Mike Gray, we would have a new dependent class of citizen — the government-supported addict. Strikingly, Mr. Gray’s prescription contains no discussion of how to reduce the consumption of drugs. His heroes are Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, whose public-health commissioner is seriously considering heroin maintenance (that is, the medically supervised distribution of pharmaceutical-grade heroin); the millionaire backers of the California and Arizona medical marijuana initiatives; and of course philanthropist George Soros, who is underwriting much of the nation’s harm-reduction movement.

Are some changes needed? Definitely. We could start by easing restrictions on physicians who prescribe pain-killers; researching the medical properties of marijuana; and rethinking aspects of the crack cocaine/powder cocaine sentencing disparity. Some interesting suggestions (and some insane ones) can be found on the Web sites of the advocacy groups that are listed in the book’s appendix.

In this era of hysteria over tobacco, the new evil weed, it is astonishing to see how many intelligent people have gone soft on drugs. They are right to be frustrated with aspects of our drug problem and to seek enlightened direction, but Mr. Gray’s skewed vision is just a bad trip.