The Wire

What we’ve been doing since the DEA was created 35 years ago has resulted in more drugs being available at lower costs. We can all agree that the “war on drugs” is an abject failure. Although one frustrated DEA agent suggested to me that what we need is Malaysian-style drug laws, most of us know that we’re never going to win this “war,” even if we start executing dealers.

(Why is “war on drugs” in quotes? Because it’s not a war. War is armed conflict between nations or states or groups within a nation or state. You can make war on a group of people [the “WoD” is arguably a war on brown people], but you can’t make war on a thing; you also can’t make war on a tactic (like terrorism) or a philosophy or an emotion. “War on drugs” is an inapt metaphor that was designed to secure the compliance of the populace.)

Even AHCL agrees that the “drug war” can never be won. But, he says, it’s “worth fighting.” AHCL points to the vignette in one of this season’s episodes of the wire in which an infant cried over the body of its mother, who had overdosed on heroin, as conveying the message “illegal drugs destroyed lives, taking its toll on the littlest of victims.”

Sometimes unwinnable fights are worth fighting. As a criminal-defense lawyer, I’ll be among the first to admit it. And many drugs are bad. Some of them are really really bad. So why not fight this quixotic battle against an unbeatable foe? Why is the “war” not worth fighting?

Because it isn’t free. Because we pay a huge and objectively unreasonable price to keep fighting the “war.” Because, in fact, the battle is doing more harm than good.

There is a direct financial cost (by some estimates, over $40 billion a year). There’s also an indirect financial cost, in potential tax revenues lost. Get rid of the war on drugs, fire half the cops and half the judges and prosecutors and half the prison guards and half the defense lawyers. Put those people to work doing something productive instead of playing the New Great Game. Tax the dope — $40 a gram, say, for cocaine — and sell it out of liquor stores. Americans consume some 500 tons of cocaine a year; that’s $20 billion that we’re giving up in tax money from cocaine alone.

There is also a societal cost: tens of thousands of young men have been killed or imprisoned, not by drugs but by the war. (When the baby was crying over its overdosed mother in the episode of the Wire that tugged at AHCL’s prohibitionist heartstrings, where was its father? In prison on drug charges? Shot down over a drug debt? Or just out working the corner?) Neighborhoods have been turned into free-fire zones not by drugs but by the war. (When was the last time you read about alcohol dealers or tobacco dealers having a shootout over territory?)

Meanwhile, America is awash in dangerous drugs. Kids are selling drugs at school, and kids are buying them. And what are the kids doing? They’re smoking some weed, but aside from that it’s mostly pills. Not illicit drugs but prescription pills — xanax, valium, vicodin — taken without a scrip. There will always be substances available to fill the human desire to escape reality. And as long as parents are using liquor and pills to escape their own realities, they’ve got no good cause to be surprised when their kids use drugs to escape their realities.

Bottom line: prohibition was a societal failure in 1933, and it’s a failure in 2008. Why it should take smart people so long to figure this out is a mystery to me.


0 responses to “The Wire”

  1. Your limited definiton of war does not allow for holy wars, cold wars, price wars or high definition DVD wars.

    But war can also be a struggle or competition between opposing forces for a particular end.

  2. I think it’s worth fighting against the harm that drugs do, but prohibition is a really bad way to do that.

    Personally, I favor a regulated system similar to that used for alcohol, tobacco, or prescription drugs. We could keep drugs away from our children, reduce the harm to non-users, and stop the war on our civil liberties.

    By the way, I think your $40/gram tax on cocaine is way too high. I’m guessing you based it on street prices. Cocaine is sometimes used as a topical anesthetic for certain types of surgery—it deadens pain and reduces bleeding because it’s a vasoconstrictor. I can’t find a current price, but back in the 80s it was about $30 per ounce. I doubt it’s more than $100/ounce today.

  3. Mark’s Dad is right. A war is whatever government and society thinks it is.

    We just applied different rules to the battles and the captured prisoners than a declared or undeclared war between nations. The pseudo odeological and religious wars are the most destructive and never ending. The next one is economic, OIL.

    In terms of your position–the war on drugs has been lost. It may be controlled somewhat though were we to legitimatize drugs, tax them significantly higher than other consumer goods (say like sin tax items) to cover the societal costs associated with those intent on hurting themselves.

    Realistically though, we will be having this discussion 20 years from now.

  4. The whole concept of substance abuse is one big paradox. On one hand in today’s fast paced society a lot of people take Xanax or drink to cope with the stress of life. On the other hand you don’t want people who can’t function in society without their fix.

    Solving substance abuse is a pleasure/pain phenomena. Most people won’t quit seeking the pleasure that drugs given them until the pain from taking them makes them want to stop. So the pain of the criminal justice system is sometimes what people need to quit. It’s probably a highly inefficient and draconian way of solving the problem but it can work.

    I do think we need a society based on rational decision making and not the Government knows best. Prohibition didn’t stop drinking and it helped fund organized crime. The war on drugs hasn’t stopped using and it’s helped fund organized crime.

    Why don’t we learn from history?

  5. jigmeister

    You’re probably right. We will probably be having this discussion 20 years from now.

    I’ve gotten a lot more cynical in my old age, but I haven’t totally abandoned hope.

  6. Jigmeister, I don’t think that’s what dad is saying, but if it is he’s wrong. “War” is a legal term; for good reason, we give the government certain powers during times of actual bygod war than we do in times of peace. If we give the government the power to define war, we’ll find ourselves in an Orwellian state of eternal war. (Oh, wait . . .)

    Society can define the word “war” to include Burger King and McDonald’s fighting over hamburgers; that’s the way the language is made. But a price war or a trade war is not legally a war.

    Why will it take — why has it already taken so much longer for us to have this discussion than it took to do away with the prohibition of alcohol?

    Ron, in my observation the pain of the criminal justice system very rarely induces people to quit. People quit when they’re ready to quit, and for most people being jailed is not rock bottom. The DEA agent may be right: removing appendages would work better.

  7. The “war on drugs” is not a legal war, but it is a metaphorical war as are the wars on poverty, cancer, und so weiter.

    And as a parent who has long used the legal drug to adjust my reality, I have good cause to be surprised that, metaphorically, neither of my acorns has landed anywhere near the tree.

  8. I was waiting for your response to AHCL’s comment that the War on Drugs was worth fighting for. Nice job. I wonder if $40 a gram is a bit steep for taxing cocaine; at that price, you’ll still create a black market for bootleg cocaine to avoid the tax (like the bootleg cigarettes in the northeast).

  9. as for an explanation for why we will continue to have this conversation, is there really a mystery?

    for one, the vast majority of voters don’t know anything about hard drugs. this ignorance breeds fear which causes the poorly thought out backlash that we’ve been dealing with for decades.

    for two, drug prohibition is a very delicate and hot item in public discourse. it is not “safe” for many people to be seen advocating a legalization of drugs, no matter what their personal beliefs. it operates much like religion (especially the old style witch burning kind) and the SS. if you’re afraid that your neighbor will john proctor your ass, you shut up and toe the line.

  10. Mark,

    I see David Finn (what kind of trial judge, I wonder) still hasn’t apologized. It also looks like he is still cutting and pasting.

  11. Interesting: he seems to have taken down the Las Vegas Sun piece (after receiving a call from the Sun, I suspect) as well as the DOJ press release about my client.

  12. War on Poverty, War on Drugs, War on Terror. Three political boondoggles that simply cannot be won while we maintain some semblance of a free society. But they look good to the voters come election time.

    The voters want their politicians to “do something” about crime, drugs, sex offenders, terrorists, whatever. I suspect that our beloved leaders do know their history and are fully aware that the current “wars” are as completely failed as was prohibition. But they will never back down because their personal, vested interest is not in solving problems, but rather in getting re-elected.

    If there is to be any change in the system, it is going to require voter action nearly on par with a revolution.

  13. Viewpoints, Outlook : March 12, 2008, 8:44PM
    At least give Spitzer credit for taking on the bad guys, PERIOD.
    It was David and Golith; while, David stood for righetous and slew the GIANT. I think this quote will suffice for us all mortals. The man without sin; standing and throwing the first stone. Still the Law of Land Prevails, because he was the enforcer for poor ethics of all morals. Now, it is his time because he must receive what he practiced and pay for not following what history has put in writing for himself and the leaders that have not been identified in illegal ethical behaviors.


    Robert Howard

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