Sunday, February 6, 2011

Who Does it Harm?

Whenever I mention my belief in drug legalization, one of the many questions raised is why I care. Many people seem to think that anyone pushing for drug legalization must be a secret stoner. And, to be fair, many drug legalization groups do give that impression. NORML, for example, outside of a few doctrinaire libertarians, often gives the impression, rightly or wrongly, of being made up of people with lifetime subscriptions to High Times magazine.

And that is  major hurdle in even interesting people in the question of drug legalization. Many seem to think that the only people drug laws even touch are drug users and the dealers who supply them. However, the truth is far different. In a previous essay I explained how banning certain drugs has led to problems in many foreign nations and along our borders.

But perhaps that is a bit too abstract. So, I will mention just a few ways that ordinary citizens are harmed by our drug laws.

The first is of personal relevance, as it has led to many difficulties for me. That is the way that drug laws have kept doctors from properly managing pain. As the federal government has begun to meddle more directly in doctors' choices about pain management, the medical community has become more reluctant to manage pain. I wrote about this at some length in my other blog, but let me just say that, in the past two years, I have been cut off from pain medication and been forced to undergo opiate withdrawal twice, have been left in excruciating pain without any medication for over a month total, and been called a drug addict and liar to my face by one doctor. Unfortunately I did not have a diagnosis at the time, so I was at the mercy of doctors. I do now have an official diagnosis (which took over a year of tests to establish), so I can receive some pain medication, but I still cannot honestly describe my pain to doctors for fear of being thought a drug seeker and being cut off once more. All because we fear that someone may wrongly gain access to opiates.

And patients like me are not the only ones to suffer from this. Doctors suffer just as much from our war on drugs. Rather than managing pain as dictated by their medical opinion, they have to temper that medical opinion with considerations of what DEA agents may think. And do not think this is an exaggeration, doctors are being sentenced to jail on the basis that a DEA agent believes they are over prescribing. Unfortunately, the DEA has never defined what constitutes over prescription, leaving doctors subject to lengthy jail sentences1 based on vague or nonexistent rules. Is it any wonder that doctors are reluctant to prescribe enough medication to keep me, and those like me, from suffering? No matter how much they might want to eliminate pain, they have to consider that doing so could land them in jail.

If we don't limit ourselves to those who are directly touched by drug restrictions, the list of those harmed gets much longer. For instance, there are those who live in the inner city, who see their neighborhoods turned into open air drug markets, those killed by stray bullets during turf wars and those whose children are recruited into working as lookouts and mules by drug dealers. Now, admittedly, inner city crime is hardly caused entirely by the drug laws, a large part of the blame must be placed elsewhere. But the drug laws do make criminality much more profitable than it would be otherwise, and make a life of crime much more attractive. If all they had to offer was stealing cars and burglary, it is unlikely criminals could recruit as easily as they do today. So, while legalizing drugs will hardly eliminate crime, it clearly will make crime a lot less attractive, and will probably slow the collapse of our inner cities.

Nor are city dwellers the only ones made less safe by our drug laws. By filling our prisons with drug users and dealers, we add to already over crowded prisons. In the worst case, this leads to prisoners being released early due to overcrowding. But we do not need early release for overcrowding to be dangerous. Overcrowded prisons also lead to an environment where judges prefer shorter sentences to avoid the necessity of such early releases. And from experience it is evident that shorter prison sentences almost always lead to increases in crime. Even if we discount the problem of early release, prison overcrowding is still a risk, as crowded prisons are both more prone to escapes and are much more dangerous for those who have to guard  those prisoners. So, even ignoring early release, prison guards are placed at greater risk by the crowding the drug laws cause in prisons and jails2.

There are other ways in which drug laws harm all of us, mainly in the surrender of our rights and in the growth of intrusive government, but as I plan to deal with those topics separately, I will leave them alone for now.

Even ignoring that topic, I think I have made my point. Drug legalization is not a topic which benefits just s few stoners who want a legal buzz. From patients to doctors to city dwellers to prison guards to the entire populace of the US, there are many, many people who are touched by the drug laws. Despite popular impressions, the laws harm more than just drug users and dealers. We may disagree over whether the benefits outweigh the harm, but let us at least recognize that these laws have a far wider reach than most people recognize.


1. I shall deal with some details of this case later. The description in the article paints a slightly different picture than other reports. However, for the moment let me say that, one thing the press and many doctors fail to realize is that oxycodone, while "active" for 6-8 hours, really only provides pain relief for about 1-2 hours. It is one reason many legitimate patients end up using "huge" quantities of the drug. Having found a doctor inclined to prescribe longer-acting pain medications, I no longer take the "excessive" amount of medication I once did, but at one time I had a doctor cut off my medication as I was taking "excessive amounts". And trust me, I was not doing so to get "high", I did so simply to allow me to get up off the sofa and move around the room. (Sadly, while pain relief lasts only 1-2 hours, CNS depression lasts the full 8 hours, so the struggle was often between finding adequate relief and avoiding a lethal dose.)

2. Obviously there are logical limits to this argument. We could easily cause our prisons to be less crowded still by releasing everyone not guilty of murder, for example. But that is obviously absurd. My argument is simple. Those who commit violent crimes clearly deserve to be in prison, as do those who steal from others. Drug dealers who fall in either category should be in jail or prison as well. On the other hand, I do not think society is at risk if we do not incarcerate drug mules (who often receive absurdly stringent sentences, sometimes averaging longer than those committing homicide receive in the same jurisdiction), users, or users who turn "dealer" to support their habit.  Releasing those who were jailed solely due to violation of drug laws does not seem to increase the danger to the public in the way releasing violent criminals or even thieves would.

Originally Posted in Examining the War on Drugs on 2008/05/31.

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