August 14, 1995
By Max Winkler-Wang
In the 4th Century BC, the Greek Armies of Pyrrhus fought the new Roman state along the Italian peninsula. They won victory after victory that were so costly, that they ultimately defeated themselves. the term “Pyrrhic victory” came from this piece of history, defining short-sighted undertakings that result in failure despite seeming success.
I work the streets of the Denver area as a Parole Officer. I deal with a variety of criminal types in a field constantly plagued by the pestilence of drugs. I often believed that what I and other law-enforcement professionals were doing, was holding the tide against a plague of criminality. Then, it began to dawn on me that we are also fueling it. We are part of the problem.
What we do is deal with “the human factors” from such a narrow position, that we miss the larger, multi-dimensional picture. Here are three (very real) examples of what I mean:
“Penny” is a middle-aged woman with a severe health problem and a dysfunctional family. several years ago, Aurora Police Officers were treated to the ongoing spectacle of an older white woman patronizing the crack and cocaine dealers of the rough crime-ridden inner-city, not making discreet buys on the quiet tree-lined streets of white suburbia.
Penny incurred several felony convictions for possession and ultimately went through the revolving doors of probation, community corrections, prison, parole, and treatment centers. nothing has worked, for the simple fact that her physical and psychic pain are only addressed by the drug itself.
“Lamont” is a young black man with a situation straight out of a Louie Anderson joke. You know the one- about the poor black kid weighing his economic options: “Do I work at McDonald for $4.40 an hour, or do I sell crack for $300 a day?”
In Lamonts neighborhood, the price of drugs is kept artificially high due to its criminalization, creating a distorted economic success story out of his “business”. Whats more, like the overwhelming majority of dealers, Lamont is also a user. He sells to cover his own cost of addiction. So the process become like a giant pyramid scheme: Each addict defrays the high cost of addiction by selling and developing new addicts, who in turn do the same. Nevertheless, Lamont started out like many an ambitious young man- trying to better himself financially. Now hes his own best customer.
“Kathy” came from an upper-class family with a history of sexual and psychological abuse. Under this thin veneer of a vivacious sportswoman, she was a psychological cripple. Living and working in a ski-resort town, she easily fell into the cycle of use and abuse of drugs. (Availability is easy in that upper-class setting.) Over the next several years, Kathy became estranged from her family and fell into a cycle of felonies that included drug possession, forgery, credit card fraud, and eventually, prostitution, to cover the cost of her addiction.
In Kathys case, when we attempted to pragmatically address the issue of treating her with medication, we ran into this conundrum: Prozac or Elavil were under whelming substitutes for Kathys own illegal self-medication.
All three of these “criminals” were successfully prosecuted as drug offenders. But these “victories” of the criminal justice system are truly Pyrrhic, because the process of illegalization is self-sustaining. (Indeed, illegalization is a major growth business in its own right, with peripheral sales generated into major industries ranging from SWAT uniforms to quick drug scan tests, from franchise drug clinics to the guaranteed job security of DEA agents, prosecutors, and people like me.)
My point is not to advocate an end to this current form of Prohibition. What I am calling for is the de-criminalization of drug addiction- not drugs themselves-in order to remove it from the control of the criminal peddlers.
Yes, the criminal syndicates with their often murderous methods should be pursued vigorously. And yes, the sleazoids who peddle drugs to kids- they should be taken off at the knees. But our approach to drug users has to be competitive with the approach to drug sellers.
The benefits? A lower crime rate, a lower HIV and other sexually transmitted disease rate, and a stabilized population of addicts that is manageable and constantly declining.
We already make a distinction between the harmless drunk who chooses to waste himself privately in the in his own home, and the arrogant drunken driver who causes mayhem to the lives of real people. The distinction is that while people may have the right to abuse themselves, they never have the right to abuse or endanger anyone else.
Decriminalizing the effects of drug use is not just a more humane means of dealing with addiction and its related problems, it is an economically pragmatic and cost-effective means of resolving the plague that we have ineffectively fought in our so-called war on drugs.
Max Winkler-Wang is an ISP Parole Officer in the Denver area and a Research Associate at the Independence Institute.
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