Written By: Anton Sawyer
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The War On Drugs (Or: How To Perpetuate A Failure)
When comparing the casualties between the actual military exercises, and those who have either died or been incarcerated, calling it a "war on drugs" is an incredibly fitting title. I have had friends and family members with certain addictions and watched as they have struggled through the years. As a red-blooded American, I eventually became a statistic to the opioid epidemic as well. This article will not only show you how the legal logistics of it all has been a nightmare, but also how I got sucked into this world of over-prescribing, pharmaceutical-kickback-receiving madmen.
Most times when a piece of legislation doesn't get the intended results, the lawmakers will change things up a bit to make it a success. Yet with the war on drugs, the US government has doubled-, tripled-, and even quadrupled-down on it in an attempt to give it some legitimacy, even though it's been a catastrophic mess. From its introduction in 1972, the war on drugs has been a complete failure on every level—financial, recidivism, and the ultimate goal of removing all drugs from the streets. The only problem is, like comedian Dennis Miller once said, "The government could take away all the drugs in the world and people would spin around on their lawn until they fell down and saw God."
There are always going to be people who are going to "enhance" their lives with whatever new chemical has dominated the masses in any given era. There are many arguments around this subject, and how best to contend with its enormity. The morality of it all will have to remain on the back burner for now. The issues we should focus on are things like if it helps people get off of drugs, if it's viable from a "cost-to-benefit" ratio, and what is the best method (other than what has already failed) when it comes to what we have available. All of the statistics will be scrutinized. The failures including the cost to taxpayers, and how other countries are having success on this front compared to America will be examined. I can promise you, it's not all coming up roses.
The kernel of the war on drugs began in 1971 when then-president Richard Nixon put together The Shafer Commission. This was a group of doctors and congressmen chaired by Pennsylvania Governor Raymond P. Shafer (R). The entire process was an attempt to remove certain people from society (or at least keep them where Nixon felt they belonged). As Nixon was quoted as saying, "I want a goddamn strong statement on marijuana … I mean one on marijuana that just tears the ass out of them." He made it clear who was in his crosshairs; "the blacks and hippies."
The Shafer Commission determined in 1972 that cannabis was as safe as alcohol, and recommended ending prohibition in favor of a public health approach. This did not deter Nixon. He completely ignored the science, lied to the American people in saying it was as dangerous as cocaine, and then propelled the media towards that narrative while pushing for it to become a Schedule 1 narcotic—which it did that same year.
Though started by Nixon, it was really former First Lady Nancy Reagan that threw it into the spotlight. Radio, television, and print media were all firmly behind Reagan and pushed her campaign of "Just Say No." Because of this being pumped in on such a massive scale, there were even TV shows that had her come on and speak to the American people about the dangers of drugs—her appearance on Diff'rent Strokes comes to the forefront. The fear that you were going to be accosted by some junkie who is trying to get you hooked by doing the ever-popular "the first one is free" motto was ever-present.
It was because of this anti-drug motivation that the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program kicked off. Starting in 1983 by the Los Angeles Police Department as a way to curtail the use of drugs, it wasn't until D.A.R.E. America started in 1989 that it became a nationwide phenomenon. Police officers would come to schools and teach the children about drugs, their dangers, how to stay off of them, and build self-esteem. They are currently active and in 2018 they implemented a supplemental lesson on opiate drug abuse prevention.
In the 1990s, President-Elect Joe Biden signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. Though this legislation has many fingers in many pies, there were definitely elements that helped to sustain the (extremely) costly war on drugs. Since then other laws, other amendments to various pieces of legislation, and of course never forgetting the media influence, have all helped to keep non-violent drug offenders OFF OUR STREETS.
When you look at the results from the actual numbers, one has to ask "why?"
For a nationwide program with decades of history like this, you know that between the law enforcement, the schools, creating the books, and other learning tools, this has cost the United States billions of dollars in taxes. Sure, other government programs set taxpayers back that much every year, but in most cases, the cost-to-benefit ratio has some backing to it and is the reason why those have stayed on the books.
The war on drugs has provided almost no benefits to the country as a whole. As of 2015, the Human Rights Watch group found that every 25 seconds, someone in America is arrested for drug possession. The number of Americans arrested for possession has tripled since 1980, reaching 1.3 million arrests per year in 2015. These numbers are astonishing, given they are six times the number of arrests for drug sales. More recently in a 2020 study by Prison Policy Initiative, it was found that 450,000 people are currently incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses on any given day in the US.
Even the D.A.R.E. program has seen its share of unfulfilled expectations. In 1999 a study by the American Psychological Association followed 1,002 individuals who, in 6th grade, had either received D.A.R.E. or a standard drug-education curriculum. These students were reevaluated at age 20. Few differences were found between the two groups in terms of actual drug use, drug attitudes, or self-esteem, and in no case did the D.A.R.E. group have a more successful outcome than the comparison group.
In 2016 another study was done by the National Institute of Drug Abuse involving teens and drug use. The results were predictable. The percentage of marijuana smokers in the past month remained steady among 8th graders at 6.5%, 10th graders at 14.8%, and 12th graders at 21.3%. Six percent of 12th graders report daily use of marijuana. All of these numbers have either remained steady or increased over the last five years. In fact, this trend seems to apply to every drug.
As a former D.A.R.E. kid who got diagnosed with an auto-immune condition, received a referral to a specialist who deals with pain management and has a propensity for addictive tendencies, I can say that from personal experience those numbers aren't wrong.
I was diagnosed with Crohn's disease in 2008. If you aren't aware, Crohn's is a digestive disease with horrific side effects. During a flare-up, your body produces hundreds of small canker-like sores from your throat all the way through the entire digestive system. Flare-ups can last days, weeks sometimes. If you have them severely enough, the sores will turn into scar tissue that can block your intestines—I've known people who've had to remove a couple of feet due to blockage. Initially, I was going to a specialist for a couple of years. I would tell him about the pain when I would be in a flare-up, but he was of the old school where you suck it up and rub some dirt on it. Eventually, I found another specialist who could help.
When I was a teenager I had been addicted to crystal methamphetamine, as well as had alcoholic tendencies in my early 20s. This sort of segued into two events happened which perfectly set me up to fail.
I never researched the doctor before I went. And when I did meet with him, I failed to mention my potential addiction triggers. My point in visiting this new specialist was never to get a bunch of opioids; I was just tired of hurting. I thought that I would be OK. I could be judicious and use it as needed. None of it went as planned.
Upon my first visit with Dr. X, we got all of the standard items set up; endoscopy, colonoscopy, blood work, etc. When I spoke to him about the pain, he said he would help. By the time I left his office, I had a prescription for 120, 10 milligram Lortab with 12 refills. He prescribed me 1,440 opioids at one time. It was supposed to last a year. Within six months I was consuming 25 pills a day. This was before the FDA crack-down and so I was able to refill them every few weeks. This began a pattern. I would get my prescription, take all of them in two weeks, go through horrible withdrawals for a few days, then start it all over again. I couldn't stop.
No matter what side-effects damaged my immediate sphere of influence, there was no way that I could have let anyone come between me and my drug. It was also around this time that another situation occurred which would firmly cement my downward spiral—my (now) ex-wife started going to pain management.
She had been diagnosed with a different auto-immune condition that attacked her nervous system, among other things. It made her arms and legs hurt immensely, and would wipe out all of her energy. It's one of the worst diseases I have ever seen and the destruction to the family and to the self was breathtaking. Another compounding factor was my stepdaughter. It's hard enough when one person has a life-long immune condition, but when you have two people with them, it causes the family unit to screech to a halt. If we were both sick we just couldn't "call out" of life. The child still needs breakfast, the dog still needs to go to the bathroom, life's adventures continue.
Because I was so hooked, she found the perfect way to exploit it: pay me to do things with drugs. She had a huge prescription as well, but she never liked the way they made her feel. A pattern began where if we woke up and were both sick, she would give me four or five pills to complete whatever task needed to be done. It was an extremely twisted codependent thing that made all of life's trials that much worse.
In 2015 I started getting help from my family doctor. We spent two years weaning me down. There were a lot of times I was dope sick and had to call out of work while purging my system, but I was finally able to stop taking them at the end of 2017. As a side-note, I cannot thank that doctor enough for helping me through it all. I know if she hadn't, I'd be dead.
Though there have been millions of lives impacted by the opioid epidemic, there has only been one place that looked at the rest of the world, found something that worked, and went with it. Oregon and the decriminalization of drugs. I know, to many that's like letting the inmates run the asylum. But these are also people who have not seen the success of Portugal and its drug program. In 2001 Portugal made all drugs legal. Cocaine, meth, heroin, all of it. Almost 20 years later, there's enough empirical data to show that it's working. After legalizing everything, the ensuing years saw dramatic drops in problematic drug use, HIV and hepatitis infection rates, overdose deaths, drug-related crime, and incarceration rates. HIV infection plummeted from an all-time high in 2000 of 104.2 new cases per million to 4.2 cases per million in 2015.
The number of people in Portugal receiving drug addiction treatment rose, according to a study by Hannah Laqueuer (assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of California, Davis). As of 2008, three-quarters of those with opioid use disorder were receiving medication-assisted treatment. By comparison, less than half of Americans who could benefit from medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction receive it. The numbers indicate that people who are forced to take accountability for their addictions versus death will explore these other avenues.
I have been reading some conservative op-eds as of late who are concerned that if this were to be adopted nationwide, there would be a horde of junkies swarming the city streets like zombies in a George Romero film. If the conservative party is truly the party of self-determination and grit, of lifting yourself by your bootstraps, I cannot see a better example of self-reliance when it comes to conquering (or at least managing) an addiction.
To look at what life has, what it has to offer, and to go through some of the worst physical Hells that a human being can endure to better yourself and stop hurting loved ones. That is the definition of grit.
I mean, the worst thing that can happen is they die ...
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