By Donella Meadows
–February 1, 1990–
An addict, they say, is a person who does the same stupid thing over and over, hoping for a different result.
By that definition our nation is addicted to its own drug policy — or, to be more exact, policies. We have two, legalization and prohibition. For reasons not of logic but of history, alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, and refined sugar are legal. Cocaine, heroin, marijuana and most synthesized drugs are not.
That double policy would make sense if we regarded each as an experiment to learn how it works and whether we want to live with it. The trouble is, after decades of experience with both legalization and prohibition, we have learned that neither really works. Worse, we have reduced the field of choice to just those two options. And worst, we are polarizing around those options, taking sides, each side trying to prove itself right and the other wrong.
Legalization, we know, opens the door to widespread addiction. There are 500,000 deaths per year in this country from tobacco and alcohol. (Deaths from heroin, cocaine, and PCP total about 2,500 per year.) These deaths and the lives that precede them carry enormous costs — in lost productivity, risk to the lungs of the passive smoker, highway danger from the inebriated driver, medical care for all the above, and shattered families. Addiction is not a private matter affecting only the addicts themselves. It touches everyone.
Legalization would hand over drug pushing to the experts: the American advertising industry. Legalizing drugs means glutting the society with opportunities to buy them. When you travel this country, you are rarely more than a few minutes away from alcohol, cigarettes, coffee, or candy. You become especially aware of the constant, insidious pushing of the legal drug industries when you are struggling to become unaddicted. To turn these seductive forces loose to sell heroin and cocaine is too frightening to contemplate.
Prohibition, on the other hand, is the path to crime and violence. It gives us border patrols, foreign invasions, inner-city drug squads, gunboats off the coast of Colombia, clogged courts, overloaded prisons, shooting in the streets. It rewards murderous suppliers with vast riches. The more successful we are in reducing supply, the higher the street price soars, the more crime is necessary to ensure each addict his or her fix, and the more suppliers are attracted to the higher stakes.
Furthermore, as we have seen over and over, prohibition doesn’t work. It can no more end the supply of drugs than an army bearing fly swatters can wipe out all flies.
The first step away from addiction is admitting that one’s behavior is (a) addicted and (b) not working. So let’s admit it. Powerful forces within our society profit from our current drug policies, but those policies do not work. We have a shamefully high level of drug-related violence and a shamefully high percentage of people choosing drugs rather than life. With 5% of the world’s people we account for 50% of the world’s drug trade. We are not even close to a drug policy that works.
Yet within our country and outside it are experiments that do offer hope, both in preventing and curing addiction. There is a lot to be learned from these experiments.
One of them is the middle ground, the mixture of legalization and prohibition that we are beginning to apply to tobacco — well ahead of most other nations. We use police power not to interrupt supply but to throw the cost of addiction more fully onto the addict. We prohibit smoking in workplaces and public places. We forbid sales to children. We charge higher insurance rates to smokers. We support those who are trying to quit. Most important, our public education about tobacco has been truthful and relentless. Therefore the non-smoking public has become the main enforcer of the regulations.
Our tobacco policy is not sufficient to stop all smoking, and not as strong as it might be. (If we had guts, we’d outlaw automatic dispensers, stop subsidizing tobacco growers, crack down harder on advertising, tax tobacco more and use the money to try other experiments.) But we have cut our smoking rate in half.
We could also learn from Alcoholics Anonymous and other Twelve Step programs how to help people beat addiction by finding fellowship and purpose in life. That would teach us the essential humanness of the drug problem. A.A. works with no enforcement power, no bureacracy, no outside funding. It works by people helping people. It doesn’t work for everyone. It can’t be Organized or Federalized. But it directs our attention from the druglords to the addicts, and it shows us that our real strengths lie in human beings, not in weapons, gunboats, or jails.
If our attention were on the addict, we would come to the heart of the matter. We know that the intractable part of our drug problem lies with the roughly one-fifth of our people that we have not included in our society. We don’t care about them, we don’t help them, and now that they are awash in drugs and crime, we fear them. There are many reasons to get serious about ending poverty and racism in this country; one of them is that we will never get drugs under control until we do.
Either legalization or prohibition or a mixture of the two would work in a compassionate society where most people get high not from drugs but from life, and where those who don’t can find immediate help. No policy will work in a society of division, polarization, and desperation.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1990