Re-thinking the war on drugs

Sunday, September 18, 2016
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

NOTE:  References follow at end of reflection.

I noted a story on the Montreal Gazette webpage on Friday, about events in Delta, B.C. - a city smaller than Kingston, with a population of 100,000

The headline: Eight Overdoses in 20 minutes: the night Fentanyl-tainted cocaine almost devatated a B.C. town.

Days before he was scheduled to return to naval school on the East Coast, 19-year-old Cody wanted one last summer hurrah with his buddies.

To keep the carousing in check, parents Jim and Sheila told their son he could invite his friends over to their Ladner, B.C., home.

“You think if you’re home and watching, nothing’s going to happen,” Sheila says.

But shortly after 1 a.m. on Sept. 1, Jim and Sheila were roused from their sleep by two of Cody’s friends.

Something was wrong with Cody, they said. Come quick.

Upstairs in the den, Cody was slumped over in a chair. He was unconscious and blue in the face.

Sheila screamed.

They carried his limp body onto the floor and checked for a pulse or a breath. They detected neither.

With the guidance of a 911 dispatcher, Sheila began pumping her son’s chest.

“I was concerned his brain was getting no oxygen,” she said. “And his eyes had completely rolled back in his head.

“I just felt the life go right out of his body.”

Cody was the first of eight overdoses in a frenzied 20 minutes that night across three separate locations in the municipality of Delta.

Today we heard the words from the ancient prophet Jeremiah.  He mourns for the people because of the calamity that besieges them.

There are many calamities in today’s world for which we can mourn.  One is drugs.  

Today I want to look at the war on drugs.
We cannot consider the Canadian situation in isolation, so I will have facts from other places, including the United States.  And I am mostly working from a book called “Chasing the Scream”. Trying to give you over 300 pages of material in a scant few minutes.  Along with insights from other sources, including  Professor Milton Friedman, Economist, Senior Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford since 1977, and considered the leader of the Chicago School of monetary economics.

The story from Delta is not far from what I have seen.  I have seen too much the effects of drugs, including alcohol, and I have buried young people who have died because of them, and I have been with families whose lives have been torn apart.  
Drugs are huge reality in our communities, and in your children’s and grandchildren’s schools.
Drugs are a part of your reality.

We’re in the midst of a calamity, and we, with Jeremiah, must mourn.

The beginning of the war on drugs centred in the U.S., and really got going in the 1920s - the height of prohibition of alcohol in that country.

A key individual - someone by the name of Harry Anslinger.  He looked around the U.S. and saw a country awash in alcohol, even in the middle of prohibition.

When prohibition ended, he was running a government bureau whose purpose had been to eradicate alcohol, a bureau that suddenly seemed to have no purpose - So a new war was embraced. He settled on chemicals that had been in common use a couple of decades before: cough mixtures had contained opiates, and a soft-drink, Coca-Cola that originally was made with the coca leaf - the source of cocaine -  and in Britain the classiest stores sold tins with heroin for society women.

Anslinger set himself a course against all these drugs.  In part - because it gave him a huge amount of power, and it allowed him to build a new bureau.  Could not fight alcohol, so let’s fight drugs.

Had to find a purpose for his government bureau.  Make a war on drugs.  Thus the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.

But there was another motivation to start a new war.

Anslinger thought marijuana irrelavent.  But there was some popular questioning, so he wrote to thirty experts.  29 wrote back to say it would be wrong to ban it, and all the hysterical articles in the press were not grounded in fact.  One expert said it should be banned.  He ignored the twenty-nine, and told everyone they would go insane if they used marijuana, and that it turns ‘man into a wild beast’.  

Further, he said: that the most fightening effect of marijauna was on blacks.  (Ch 1, 21/51) It made them (according to him) forget the appropirate racial barriers and unleashed their lust for white women.

Fear of Blacks and fear of Mexicans fuelled his fire.

Billie Holiday.  Jazz singer.  Became significant in 1939.   It is said that she started the civil rights movement with a song that included the words:
    Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
    Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.

She was ordered by the government to stop singing the song.  She refused.
And her harassment by Anslinger and his Federal Bureau of Narcotics began the next day.  After all, she was black, and she sang jazz which was, to him, “an evidence of the primitive impulses that lurk in black people.”  He thought jazz music was also proof that marijuana drives people insane.

He told his agents to follow people like Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong, with the plan of a great round-up.  And his instructions for drug raids: shoot first.

But Billie was also using heroin - to mentally escape a brutal upbringing.  But Anslinger was not interested in getting her into treatment.  She was imprisonned.  And because she had a criminal record, she could no longer  perform legally in nightclubs.  How could she possibly support herself?  And how could she, in her mind, escape this even worse situation?  He hounded her until she died.
But Anslinger met another individual with a heroin addiction.  Someone by the name of Judy Garland.  He advised her to take longer vacations and told her agency she had no problems.

And when a society hostess he knew had an illegal drug addiction, he said he could not possibly arrest her because “it would destroy the unblemished reputation of one of the nation’s most honoured families.”  And so he found her treatment.  No arrest, no jail.  Because she was white.

The war on drugs is thoroughly rooted in racism, sprouts from racism - against blacks, Mexicans and the Chinese.  
And it still is: as it is pursued much more in black neighbourhoods than well-off white ones, even though the consumption of marijuana is often higher in the well-off neighbourhoods.

One well-respected police officer, Matthew Fogg, asked his superior why they were only doing drug busts in black neighbourhoods.  Referring to the white neighbourhoods, the answer he received: “You know you are right they are using drugs there but you know what?  If we go out and we start targeting those individuals, they know judges, they know lawyers, they know politicians, they know all of the big folks in government.  If we start targeting them, and their children, you know what’s going to happen?  We’re going to get a phone call and they’re going to shut us down.  You know that?  You know what’s going to happen?  There goes your overtime..... So let’s just go after the weakest link.  Let’s go after those who can’t afford the attorneys, those who we can lock up.”

The war on drugs is thoroughly rooted in racism, sprouts from racism, and continues to grow in racist soil.

But surely we have to keep up the war on drugs, because these drugs are so addictive.

Professor Bruce Alexander - 1977 Simon Fraser University....  
One of his experiments.... morphine (like heroin)
rat park====»»»»
32 addicted rats - 10 isolation, 22 rat park....====»»»»
  Withdrawal, but.....

(Extemporaneous conversation on second experiment of Rat Park:
- “Kicking the Habit”, page 22 ff of website version)

You see, these drugs are potentially addictive.  And yes, some people will develop true addictions.  But for the majority of people, these drugs are not addictive.  It does not mean it is a good thing to consume them.  But they are not the irrevokable death sentence that we have often thought them to be.  

In Portugal, they find that 90% of all drug users have no problem.  And 10% need help.  Sounds like alcohol, where one statistic shows 8% of those (over 18) who drink need help.  Same thing.

So, fact: the risk of addiction from drugs is far less than we have feared.
(Fact is, nicotine is more addictive than the illegal drugs - yet we all know people who have quit.)

And does punishment get people off drugs?  What happens when you take people out of society and put them into jail situations?  Or, even worse, some of the horrid situations, such as work gangs who live in tents that reach 140F - 60C.  What will they do when they come out, if they survive, having had no treatment?  They will take drugs to escape the memories.  

Half the people in U.S. prisons are there for drug offences.  One in 300 Americans is in prison for a drug offence.

The numbers are far less in Canada.  But the cost benefit of treatment versus punsishment is enormous:  
A study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that every dollar spent on drug treatment in the community yields over $18 in cost savings related to crime.23 In comparison, prisons only yield $.37 in public safety benefit per dollar spent.
    See more at:
Canadian source show similar benefits to treatment.

But we continue to put those that are seen as “offenders” in jail.  We will treat and support those who struggle with an issue with one particular drug: alcohol.  But we will throw someone in jail for consuming another drug that only puts they, themselves, at some risk.  And by doing so..... remember Rat Park?  By doing so, we harden the reflex to turn to drugs to escape.

What else?

Well the war on drugs itself causes some very real problems.

Problem number one: the drugs get stronger and stronger.  We know this from reading the news.  We know this if we talk to young people today.  
And we shake our heads and hope for a crack-down.
Wait.  Here is a story.  Years ago, at the very beginning of the 20th century, people drank beer and wine and spirits.  Then came prohibition.  You were not allowed to transport, sell, or serve alcohol in many places.  And what happened?  People still consumed alcohol.  But beer and wine became rare.... and moonshine and other potent beverages became common.  After all, if you’re going to transport and sell an illegal substance, you want to pack the most potency into every barrel.

And today, if you’re going to transport and sell an illegal substance, you want to pack the most potency into every baggie and every pill.

Thus the war on drugs has contributed to the ever-increasing potency - and lethal nature - of drugs today.

That’s not helpful.  It is part of the cost of the war on drugs.  

Why were the folk in Delta B.C. using cocaine that night, instead of a mild marijuana of the 1970's - one might reasonably think it is because of the war on drugs.

Another problem with the drugs: violence.  Again, the parallel of the prohibition.  When did people start killing people over alcohol?  When it was illegal.  Note Al Capone.  When did they stop killing each other over the control of alcohol?  When it became legalized. ==»»»»»

We know about the gang wars.  Gang wars that exist because of an illegal trade worth billions and billions of dollars every year - 400 billion dollars a year in the world, according to the U.N., and between 7-18 billion in Canada - a lot to fight over, a lot to kill for.

And if the gangs were only killing members of gangs, perhaps we would be okay with turning a blind eye.  But over and over there is collateral damage.  There are innocent people caught by gunfire, there are innocent people who are wrongfully identified and shot, there are law enforcement officers who put their lives on the line for the war on drugs, there are addicts shot because of crime where they, themselves, are the ones who are suffering.  Day after day, people are dying in the wars over drugs and in the wars to control the drugs.  

The violence around drugs exists because the drugs are illegal.  Not many people are getting killed fighting for turf to sell alcohol these days.  
Not many innocents are caught by a stray bullet shot to protect an alcohol deal.
Not many are shot during an attempted arrest because they have a bottle of wine.

But thousands, literally thousands of people of people - some estimates are over 10,000 - are dying every year in the U.S. and Canada in the war against drugs, and the wars for drugs.  

But if there was not the war on drugs, there would not be the wars for control of drug territory and drug revenue.  If there was regulation and control instead..... just as there is for alcohol.

The costs of the war on drugs increases, and blood is shed.
And we mourn with Jeremiah.

But what about deaths caused by drugs themselves?  
    What about those folk in Delta, B.C. - who are just part of the picture??

Part of that is because of the war against drugs drives in potency.  And part of it is because people never really know what they’re getting.  I sat in my office in one of my churches and listened to two parents talk about their twenty-year old son who had died.  One suggested it was a straight overdose.  One suggested that the drugs had been cut with other chemicals......
Imagine if you had a headache.  You reach for your headache pills, and take two.  But these were made in someone’s basement and sold by a dealer on the street.  So you don’t know if they each contain 500 mg, 1000mg or 10mg of acetaminophen.  Of course you would be at risk.  Perhaps of not getting any relief.  Or perhaps you take ten, figuring they’ll be weak - and damage your liver permanently.   And you don’t know if there are other things mixed in.... perhaps a bit of warfarin, a blood thinner.... which can be fatal.  Of course you would be at risk if these medications were created in someone’s basement.

So - the deaths caused by drugs themselves are most often because the potency of the drugs is unknown, and because the drugs are cut with other substances.  

That, indeed, is what happened in Delta that night.  There were traces of fentanyl in the cocaine - fentanyl, where an amount equal to a couple of grains of salt can be fatal - were mixed in, because the production is not controlled and not regulated.

The potency of the alcohol you buy is pretty reliable.  And you know that when you buy an alcoholic beverage, it is ethanol, which is normally consumed as a beverage, and not isopropyl alcohol, for example, or rubbing alcohol.  But that is true because the alcohol trade is no longer illegal.  It was not the case during the prohibition.

So, the war on drugs drives drug creation underground - and the resulting drugs are of unknown potency and unsure composition.  And death can ensue - death does ensue.

Strange to say.... but the war on drugs almost caused eight deaths in Delta that night, if it were not for the speedy administration of Naloxone, an antidote, in each case.

But wait - in those cases, someone called 911.  But calls to 911 are discouraged.... by the simple fact that the drugs are illegal, so those who also are in possession are less likely to call, and more likely to run.

But what happens when drugs are not illegal?  It is hard to be completely sure, because international treaties stop countries from making them legal, and making them a controlled and regulated substance like alcohol - treaties imposed, in many cases, by the U.S.
But one country, Portugal, has made it that possession is no longer a crime.  Portugal was in an especially desperate situation with drugs.  But in 2001, the country decriminalised the possession of all drugs, on the grounds that choosing to put a chemical in your own body should not be a crime, and addiction should not be a crime.  Monies put into enforcement were put into employment programs and therapy.  Remember Rat Park.  Instead of the majority of money going to enforcement, as is the case in the U.S., and, to a lesser degree, Canada - they put 90% of the same money into treatment and prevention, including employment programs.  
And the situation in Portugal has improved dramatically since 2001.

Are drugs a good idea?  No.  But we’re not going to get rid of them with a war on drugs, we’ll just make them worse.  Can we stop the war on drugs?  Not quickly or easily, because of international treaties which the U.S. certainly still backs.  But we got past prohibition of alcohol.  We will have to get past the criminalization of drug use.

Do I think drugs are a good idea?  No, and I reflect that in my personal choices.
But do I think that prohibition worked?

For now, we sit with Jeremiah and mourn.  
We mourn with the parent whose child has been killed by a bad mixture of drugs.  
We mourn with the sister whose brother was shot by police in a case of mistaken identity.  
We mourn with the brother whose little sister was killed by a stray bullet shot by organized crime.  
We mourn with the husband whose police-officer wife was shot by members of organized crime, protecting their territory.  
We mourn with the grandparent who sees their street turned into a battlefield.

For now, we sit with the prophet Jeremiah and mourn.
For now.

Selected References:

Chasing the Scream - The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, Johann Hari

(I have not given page numbers for my information as I was reading an e-book.  If you want information on specific citations, ask and I will search for the info)

Rat Park: