No More Politics of Denial

by Rob Stewart

In the world of drug politics, deadlines come and go. It seems that, as long as it is politically expedient to promise to eliminate drugs, politicians will try to make the task, no matter how impossible, seem doable. Public officials at the United Nations and in Washington, D.C., are stuck in this political spin cycle.

In the early 1960s, the United Nations committed itself to eliminating the plant sources of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana in 25 years. The clock ran out in 1989. Instead of reevaluating its plan, the United Nations promised last June to get the job done in 10 years.

In 1989, President Bush proposed cutting drug use 55 percent in 10 years. In February, President Clinton introduced his plan to cut drug use in half in 10 years, without mentioning Bush's plan. Not to be out-done, the speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, rejected Clinton's plan and declared that the timeline should be four, not 10, years.

Why so many unachieved deadlines? The unmistakable conclusion is that timelines are chosen more for political than for practical reasons. Politicians have ample reason to assume that many voters will believe their promises when they are made, just as voters will forget about deadlines when they lapse unfulfilled. Until politicians and policy makers are forced to confront the cycle of denial - that such timelines are empty and unachievable - we will make no progress in our efforts to deal with the harms of drug policy or drug abuse.

The authors of the book "Drug War Politics" - Eva Bertram, Morris Blachman, Kenneth Sharpe, and Peter Andreas - explained the specious reasoning at work in drug policy as follows: "Some Americans think the failure of the drug was is due simply to lack of effort, lack of resources, or bad management; they deny the fatal defects at the heart of the strategy that systematically undermine the prospects for success at home and abroad."

Can the government increase its efforts by seizing more drugs, arresting more users and traffickers, and committing more users to one-size-fits-all treatment? Yes. Will these increases accomplish the big goals, such as creating a society that is nearly drug-free, if not drug-free? No. Drugs are here to stay as are the laws of supply and demand. It would take much more than prohibition to change that. Unfortunately, that does not keep politicians from trying.

Take, for example, the revived U.N. effort to eradicate illegal drug crops. As the U.N. strategy starts cutting the drug supply, the result would be to make the remaining drug crops even more valuable, which would mean that the black market would be even harder to eliminate. None of the U.N. delegates meeting last June raised this point as a reason to reconsider the 10-year eradication plan.

Similarly, U.S. politicians overwhelmingly support measures to crack down on drug traffickers in other countries. But the very act of cracking down on suppliers either shifts the trade to rival organizations or fragments it. In Colombia, the efforts to overthrow the Medellin and Cali organizations splintered a few, big supply operations into smaller, harder-to-find groups. In addition, the kingpins have spread from Colombia to just across the southern U.S. border.

Efforts to reduce the demand for drugs are also problematic. American users so outnumber current resources that many are not deterred by fear of arrest or discovery. In 1996, the number of people who reported using an illegal drug within the past year was three times the number of those in the criminal justice system for all offenses plus those in drug treatment.

U.S. politicians are not blind to the counter-productive aspects of their drug policies. Many accept some setbacks because they believe drug prohibition has a higher value. This belief leads to another type of denial: that the government has a duty to protect people from themselves and that forcing people into cells or into treatment is helping them. The belief that the government should legislate how a person takes care of his or her own body is not only impracticable, it takes away a person's autonomy, the right to live according to one's values and to take responsibility for one's actions.

Denial is evident in countless government documents and speeches that both (1) reaffirm the government's commitment to individual rights, and (2) invoke some combination of popular sentiment, national security, and even naked paternalism to justify expanding the "war" on drugs. Clinton's latest "National Drug Control Strategy" states up front that, "The traditions of American democracy affirm our commitment to both the rule of law and individual freedom. Although government must minimize interference in the private lives of citizens, it can not deny people the security on which peace of mind depends."

The assertion that prohibition is only a minimal "interference" in the lives of Americans is indicative of the denial at work here. The denial is deep enough that public officials can occasionally come very close to admitting the truth. President Bush's first drug advisor, William Bennett, said in 1989, "If we are to win the war on drugs, it seems to me that we have two choices: We can either restore the moral authority of families, schools, and churches - or we can increase the police authority of the state. I expect that, in the short run, we may have to do both."

Of course, Bennett offers to increase the role of the police because the government does not control American moral authority. Bennett thrives on the mistaken belief that the government has the duty to do whatever is popular. After all, the current drug policies reflect the will of the people, as interpreted by their elected representatives. For Bennett, then, the moral authority flows from the fact that the drug war was born in a democracy according to the rules of democracy. An earlier generation had to amend the Constitution before the federal government had the authority to prohibit alcohol. Today, politicians find authority for drug prohibition in popular support rather than in the Constitution.

Such a view turns the idea of individual rights on its head. Rights are nothing if not trump cards against popular sentiment. Current drug policies have denied the value of individual rights and responsibilities by pretending that all drug use and trafficking is a crime.

The problem is that bad habits or unhealthy lifestyles are not the same things as crimes that violate another person's rights. The difference is in the absence of a victim. Drug laws group together many activities that can be associated with crimes but do not by themselves constitute crimes. The belief that people who, with full understanding and mutual consent, use or sell drugs is tantamount to a crime, is specious. It sounds good to those who strongly disapprove of those activities, but it does not stand up to reason.

Public officials routinely assert that drug use is not wrong because it is illegal; it is illegal because it is wrong. Why is it that they do not have to remind Americans that, "Murder is not wrong because it is illegal; it is illegal because it is wrong"? Most people, even young people, grasp why murder is wrong. Fewer see why drug use is wrong in the way that murder, rape, robbery, assault, and theft are.

There can be no denying that current drug policy rests on unsound principles. Reformers can help break the spinning cycle of denial by continuing to raise the impertinent questions and building a consensus for reform. This Drug Policy Letter offers insight and analysis about current proposals coming from Washington to help more Americans send back a simple message: "Enough is enough. It is time for change."

(Reprint, The Drug Policy Letter, Summer 1998 edition)

Copyright © 1996. The Light Party.

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