Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Dealing With Drug Crime

Two former Baltimore City Police officers recently offered their views on enforcing drug laws in this Washington Post op-ed. They make some very valid points.
“Drug users generally aren't violent. Most simply want to be left alone to enjoy their high. It's the corner slinger who terrifies neighbors and invites rivals to attack. Public drug dealing creates an environment where disputes about money or respect are settled with guns.”
The two former officers describe the results of “the ineffectiveness of drug policies,” including “violence, poor community relations, overly aggressive policing and riots,” plus “the drug war's clear and present danger toward men and women in blue.” These horrors, they assert, provide ample reason for them to declare that legalization of drugs is the solution. They claim that doing so would save law enforcement money while also raising tax revenues.

The former officers say, “Legalization would not create a drug free-for-all. In fact, regulation reins in the mess we already have.” Government could regulate drugs like it does alcohol and tobacco “to control where, when and to whom drugs are sold.” They write:
“Prescription drugs are regulated, and while there is a huge problem with abuse, at least a system of distribution involving doctors and pharmacists works without violence and high-volume incarceration. Regulating drugs would work similarly: not a cure-all, but a vast improvement on the status quo.”
To bolster their argument, they assert:
“Drug manufacturing and distribution is too dangerous to remain in the hands of unregulated criminals. Drug distribution needs to be the combined responsibility of doctors, the government, and a legal and regulated free market. This simple step would quickly eliminate the greatest threat of violence: street-corner drug dealing.”
California’s medical marijuana dispensaries are cited as “a good working example, warts and all, that legalized drug distribution does not cause the sky to fall.”

As far as I can tell, however, the drug legalization model that these guys are prescribing would still fail to address many of the same problems currently being managed via law enforcement. The alcohol market they cite is based entirely on recreational drug use (protestations of health benefits notwithstanding). Ditto with the tobacco market and even California’s ‘medical’ pot market.

But the individual and broader societal impacts of these drugs — whether they are used legally or not — are miniscule when compared to the impacts of many of the harder drugs that are either illegal or are tightly controlled. The general addictive qualities and the general deleterious effects of the misuse of these harder drugs are orders of magnitude greater than those of drugs like alcohol, tobacco, and pot. That’s why no one needs a doctor’s prescription to buy alcohol or tobacco, and that essentially bogus doctor’s prescriptions are acceptable for buying marijuana in California.

The drug distribution system suggested by the two former police officers would not apparently do away with the current prescription based model. Are they suggesting that we should follow the California ‘medical’ pot model for obtaining prescription drugs? We currently arrest doctors that give out bogus prescriptions, and for good reason.

The law expects doctors to prescribe only those drugs that meet a valid medical need. Are we going to rewrite the regulations to include a desire to get high as a valid medical need? That’s highly doubtful. Since the prescription model isn’t going away, and getting high is not a valid medical use, exactly how would the ‘legalized drug’ system deliver recreational drugs?

Yesterday I attended a presentation by a law enforcement drug task force where the current most problematic patterns of drug abuse were described. The most common model is for someone to get a legal prescription for a narcotic drug following an injury or surgery and to become addicted to the drug. When the doctor will no longer prescribe the drug, they begin doctor shopping and even stealing from their friends’ medicine cabinets.

The addict soon becomes aware that we have systems designed to catch doctor shoppers. Some turn to prescription fraud at this point, but we also have systems to detect that behavior. A few turn to pharmacy robbery. Many finally end up turning to the black market for privately produced narcotics. The problem spans almost all age groups from middle school kids to senior citizens.

Anytime a substance is controlled, a black market will develop to deliver that substance to those excluded from getting it. It is difficult to see how any prescription based system would work much differently than our current system. Due to recreational addicts accessing the black market, we would still end up with all of the same nasty law enforcement problems mentioned above.

Perhaps the former officers are deliberately vague because they favor a system where any adult could legally purchase any drug for any purpose without a doctor’s prescription, much the way that alcohol and tobacco purchases are handled. Such a system would essentially destroy the prescription model. There would simply no longer be any use for such a model. Your doctor would just tell you to go to the drug store and buy thus-and-such drug. Or you could decide to self medicate. No prescription would be necessary.

Few Americans are willing to entertain the thought of such a system, but let’s honestly ask the question of whether a system like that would take the “gangsters out of the game,” as they put it. Proponents say that it would, much as happened in the alcohol industry when Prohibition was repealed.

The Netherlands is often cited as a positive model for drug legalization. But the results of that nation’s experiment have been mixed. “Dutch rates of drug use are lower than U.S. rates in every category” and the percent of population that becomes problem drug users is lower than the EU average. But the Netherlands currently has “the second highest drug related public expenditure per capita of all countries in EU.” 75% of that expenditure is for law enforcement. Drug related crime (including violent crime) is a major problem. Last year, parliament voted to strengthen certain drug bans rather than further relaxing drug laws.

It turns out that many of our controlled drugs do not quite follow the alcohol and tobacco model. Many of these drugs have significantly greater addictive properties and much greater potential for harmful side effects. Legalization has not proven to substantially improve drug crime problems, although, some social problems may be reduced to a degree. It is quite unclear that legalization would be “a vast improvement on the status quo.”

I believe it would be foolish to fail to see the problems with our current drug policy. But neither is wholesale drug legalization necessarily the best answer to those problems. Drug abuse is a serious and complex public issue that deserves a serious and thoughtful approach. Simple ideological ‘solutions’ aren’t likely to fill the bill.

1 comment:

FelixAndAva said...

One thing that seems to get overlooked a lot in discussion of loosening drug laws is the effects on those around the user. Drug use, as I've experienced first-hand, not only contributes to the incidence of robbery, but to domestic violence, child neglect/abuse, and the deaths of innocent bystanders harmed by impaired drivers or those having drug-related violent psychiatric issues.

Needless to say, I'm very much opposed to making it even easier for those who wish to poison themselves to get hold of these toxins (frankly, I'd favor tighter regulation of alcohol and tobacco as well), since the harm done by drug use extends well past the user.