February 21, 2013
The Honorable Barack Obama, President of the United States
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
Dear President Obama,
It is with great honor and dignity that I address you and bring your attention to a subject devoid of such things – the current drug policy in our nation.
Anthony Papa, a resident for 15 years in our corrections system stated, “There was so much drugs in prison, it was unbelievable. You could get any kind of drug you want – in prison. If you can’t control drug use in a maximum security prison, how could you control drugs in a free society?” Drug prohibition is an idealistic and unrealistic stance to take on the public health consequences of drug use. It causes many unintended side effects to our society as a nation and the global society we are so prevalent in. I understand your reproach to the term “war on drugs,” but however you wish to refer to it, no progress is being made. We are at a standstill. In the words of President Santos of Columbia, “I feel like [I am] in a static bicycle. You work hard; you work hard, and suddenly you look to your right, you look to your left. I was in the same place” (Santos Qtd. in Breaking). At the Summit of the Americas you stated, “I know there are frustrations and that some call for legalization. For the sake of the health and safety of our citizens – all our citizens – the United States will not be going in this direction” (Obama Qtd. in Calmes). Throughout this letter I hope to change your stance on drug policy and prove to you that our current policies are detrimental to the safety, the health, and the liberties of all the citizens in our country and abroad.
Section I: Creation of a Violent Underground Market
Just the same as when alcohol was prohibited in the 1920’s, the demand for drugs remains unchanged since the onset of drug prohibition. In fact, “by the end of alcohol prohibition more people were drinking alcohol than at the start of alcohol prohibition” (Nadelmann Qtd. in Breaking). In much the same manner, drug use has been on the rise. In 2010, the UN estimated that 230 million people used an illicit substance and predicted that that number will increase by 25% by 2050 and most of the growth will occur in developed countries, such as the United States (Yoo). Sure, you could say, as your current drug czar has many times, that drug use has declined since 1979 (“White House”). This statistic is misleading however, because nearly the entirety of that decline happened in the early 1980’s even before Reagan stepped up the enforcement of drug prohibition, thus any year has shown a reduction in drug use when compared to 1979 (Levine). The truth of the matter is that cannabis use has long been steadily increasing, as has MDMA between 2007 and 2010. In those same years use of cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine has remained stable (World…2012). The use of these drugs will not fall by reducing the supply of the narcotic, but only by reducing the demand.
That demand is being met by increasingly violent cartels who have taken it upon themselves to reap the massive, risk-driven profits available to them in this black market. When a kilogram of cocaine, their most common product, leaves a Columbian plantation it is worth roughly $1,000. When it arrives in the streets of the US, it can be worth over $170,000 (Breaking). Those kinds of figures are not seen by any company on the face of the planet. The distribution of illegal drugs – which the UN estimates make up for more than half of all organized crime – causes the cartels to have the most profitable business model known to mankind (World…2012).
Rest assured that these cartels will do whatever it takes to keep control of their $30 billion a year business (“Mexico’s”). The Mexican drug cartels are internationally renowned for their violence and military style warfare against each other, and more importantly, the innocent people of Mexico. Similarly, in Rio de Janeiro in the midst of the constant and uninhibited violence between rival drug gangs, an anonymous 19 year old man was walking down the street with his girlfriend, when he was struck and paralyzed by a stray bullet. He articulates that “the highest price is always paid by the innocent in the favela” (Anonymous Qtd. in Breaking). What is even more disconcerting are those deceased victims who are unable to speak against the violence, including over 1,000 innocent children in Mexico, where disturbingly, many were intentionally targeted solely for the purpose of proving their licentious savagery to their rivals and the population as a whole (O’Connor). The death and destruction of the drug trade is not limited to Mexico and south of the equator. Across our country violence tarnishes the lives of those who are left living. In our own Baltimore, in certain neighborhoods “men have a 12% chance of getting murdered in their lifetime,” due to the drug-trade which has ravaged a once great city (Moskos Qtd. in Breaking). This year in Chicago more Americans have been killed violently than those in Afghanistan and most of this is due to gangs involved in the drug trade (Huff Post Chicago). In Mexico, the death toll has been rising each year, with more than 60,000 drug-trade related deaths since 2006 (Q&A). Each of these deaths – innocent or not – is a tragedy that causes my heart to sink a foot lower, and at this point in the war on drugs, my heart is 20,000 leagues beneath the sea.
After witnessing your reaction to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, I know that you understand the inestimable value of human life. You say, “These tragedies must end, and to end them, we must change” (Stein). I believe that this quote could be well applied to the violence globally and across our great nation induced by drug prohibition. To quote Einstein: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” (Einstein Qtd. in “Top Albert Einstein”). We, as a nation, must change the drug policy, or by his definition, be insane.
Section II: The War on Drug Users
“Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding” (Einstein Qtd. in “Top Albert Einstein“). This is especially true in the case of the drug user. In order to curb the public health problems associated with drug use, you must first understand why drug users take them in the first place. The United States fails to understand the drug user and attempts to gain peace through force, which has never nor will ever give peace to our country’s health issues associated with drug use.
The war on drug users is perhaps the most complex issue of drug prohibition. Unlike all other aspects of it, the use of psychoactive drugs is not something that stems purely out of prohibition, but is something that is inherent to all human beings. People have been using psychoactive substance for over 12,000 years (White, Samuel). If you can accept that people will always have a drive towards them, it allows us to work in a fundamentally more productive and progressive manner. It is irrational to think that our world will ever be drug free. Is that what we are even trying for? Because it is obvious that at this rate no real progress is being made. More Americans are using drugs, more Americans are buying drugs, and more people worldwide are making drugs and earning gross profits by sending them to the drug using capitol of the world: the United States of America (World…2012). If we were trying for a drug free America, you or your predecessors would have banned the legal psychoactive substances that are routinely allowed and dismissed as customary by almost all Americans.
However, there is a polarization amongst Americans on the subject of illegal drugs and even disagreements regarding different drugs (Breaking). Most of the general public who favor a zero-tolerance drug policy is extremely ill informed. They are from a generation or taught by a generation that was exposed to Reagan’s entirely false advertising campaign against drugs, which was a springboard for America’s credibility problem on illicit drugs. They claimed that “drugs kill you” (Breaking), “and that had a [credibility] problem because most of the people using drugs weren’t dead and they liked to use drugs.” (Dupont Qtd. in Breaking) What these campaigns did most successfully was stigmatize the drug user in the eyes of the non-drug using American and give them a false sense of superiority akin to when one judges another’s skin, creed, gender, or sexual orientation. In America you were once denied many rights if you were not white, if you were not a man, if you were not heterosexual, and now, if you are not drug free, you risk losing many rights. The non-drug users have become desensitized to the fact that these users are people, living within the same human condition that they are – the bonds that hold us together need to be stronger than those that push us apart.
From this desensitization of drug users and the choice to not understand them but rather dehumanize and punish them, stems many of the health issues faced by the average drug user. These people really have to ask themselves as Ruth Dreifuss, former President of Switzerland did, “Who are the addicts? Our children. People we love. People we would really like to bring back to normal life” (Dreifuss Qtd. in Breaking).
First off, the majority of drug users that become dependent on them, start using in a time of crisis, to escape the darkness of their reality. “The night that we buried her [her sister], a friend of the family came past, he said ‘try this.’ And I said ‘what’s that?’ He said, ‘Just try this; it’ll make you feel better.’ What it was, it was heroin,” said Fran Boyd Andrews (Andrews Qtd. in Breaking). Those who need escape from their emotional, sociological, or economic problems are much more prone to addiction, this is why you see that in Baltimore – a place with little economic or sociological opportunity, 10% of people are addicted to an illegal drug (Breaking).
Second off, the people are unwilling to spend any sort of money to help those dependent on drugs. They are viewed as a lost cause – people who chose their own downfall, even people who deserve what they got, whether it is prison time, fatal overdoses, or HIV/AIDS. The United States spends $0.00 a year on clean needle exchanges and because of this at least 283,200 people have become infected with HIV/AIDS that would have otherwise been prevented (“Drug War Statistics”). Throughout the southern states, even non-government affiliated volunteers are prohibited from giving out clean needles, such as in Georgia. Some local police there see the benefit of needle exchange and let them be, while others do not (Castillo). “It costs $680,000 to treat a person with HIV and 9 cents to prevent it with a clean needle” (McDowell Qtd. in Castillo). The choice is yours.
Thirdly are those addicts who are arrested and sent to prison for possession of an illegal substance. When people are sent to prison, they still have access to drugs and have no distraction from their dependency as they would in the outside world. “If you didn’t have a drug habit going in, you leave going with a drug habit,” says Anthony Papa who spent 15 year in prison for a low level drug offence (Papa Qtd. in Breaking). Amanda Fielding, scientist and drug policy reformer says, “The most fundamental step we need to take is to realize that addiction is a medical problem and therefore addicts need to be treated medically, not criminally. If we accept that basic principle, we overcome most of the disagreements about drug policy” (Fielding Qtd. in Breaking). Many of those people in prison are not getting the treatment that they need, as are the addicts who are free because they are afraid of being arrested when they seek treatment. To decrease addiction in America, you must open the door to treatment and close – or rather open – the door to prison. As you and your current drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske said in 2009, roughly 120,000 of the people arrested for possession are being sent to treatment facilities rather than prison a year (Jones). The problem is, in the same year, there were 1.6 million drug arrests, 1.3 million of those arrests were for possession alone, and over 800,000 of those were for cannabis alone (Breaking). Granted that many of those arrested, over 90% of the global population (World…2012), are not dependent on drugs and would gain nothing from treatment, but in the same manner, they would gain nothing from prosecution and are an immense cost to our society.
A great example of decriminalization in action is Portugal. Since decriminalization of illegal drug possession took effect in 2001, usage prevalence for every illicit drug has been down, as have overdoses and STDs, with no ill side effects (Greenwald). Since the addicts no longer fearing arrest when they sought treatment, the number of those being treated skyrocketed from 6,000 in 1998 to 24,000 in 2008, without rise in the number of users (Greenwald). In the late 1990’s Switzerland faced one of the highest HIV/AIDS rates in the world, spread mostly through dirty needles. In 1999, they began providing clean needles and medical heroin to the heroin using population. Ten years later, the HIV/AIDS rate has been reduced by over 50%. (Breaking). The issuing of medical heroin greatly increases the safety to the heroin addict. Nearly all overdoses from heroin are not due to the drug itself, but rather adulterants added to increase the profits of those selling it. Pure heroin used by a street addict has been shown to be just as safe as when administered at a hospital (Peele). This is an excellent reason to take the drug distribution out of the hands of violent dealers and into the hands of legal FDA approved and controlled retailers and pharmaceutical companies.
The most corrupt aspect of the arrests of those in possession of illegal drugs is those who are arrested and were not, in fact, in possession of drugs. In 2009, a former NYPD detective testified that it was common practice amongst officers to plant illegal narcotics in order to meet their arrest quotas (Marzulli). This practice is apparently widespread and may help explain the racial disparity of those arrested and incarcerated for drug possession, as the officers choose those that appear to be drug users by racially profiling their targets.
What is needed instead of criminal arrests for possession is education, education, and more education. The people need to be informed of the real dangers that drugs have, especially the potential for addiction, which is, in my opinion the greatest danger they have to offer. They need to be informed that drugs such as heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine have an extremely high potential for addiction. They need to be told that yes, using any drugs is a bad choice, but if you do make that choice, there are certain drugs that are a worse choice than others. They need to be told, not from an authoritarian standpoint of illegality that you should remain drug free, but simply for the sake of your own health. I believe former President Clinton said it best: “Don’t be drug free because it’s illegal, be drug free because it’s the key to your freedom, it’s the key to your future” (Clinton Qtd. in Breaking). You cannot ever be completely free if you are dependent on anything but yourself, and the people need to know this.
Section III: Constitutionality
In 1918, alcohol prohibition was enacted through the 18th amendment of our constitution. So, why was it that in 1970, there was no formal amendment needed to ban the drugs we know as “illegal” today?
Instead, Nixon enacted the Controlled Substances Act as introduced by Senator Everett Dirksen. Article VI, clause 2 of the United States Constitution reads – as I’m sure you are well aware:
“This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.”
Essentially, all laws and treaties must be crafted within the limits set upon the government within the pages of the constitution. Because of this ever important clause, many of the first American people in late 1700’s felt that the Bill of Rights was entirely unnecessary, simply because all powers not listed in the constitution were not held by the federal government, therefore making the first ten amendments, simply redundant.In order to appease those of this opinion, they added the 9th amendment, which stated that the people of the United States had more rights than were formally listed in the constitution. But what more directly applies to the Controlled Substances Act is the 10th amendment, which gave all powers not granted nor denied by the constitution to the states. In both the case of alcohol prohibition and of drug prohibition, those are new powers not listed in the constitution, being acquired by the federal government, and in the case of drug prohibition, those are powers that were never surrendered by the people and the states through the ratification of an amendment, thus making them unconstitutional. This is a prime example of a federal government slowly but surely illegally acquiring new powers. This is exactly the sort of thing the writers of the constitution were attempting to prevent with the supremacy clause and 10th amendment.
And so, now the question is: can the state government legally prohibit the use of a psychoactive substance? I would argue that the 9th and 14th amendments are set to ensure the American people as many – no, any civil liberty that does not infringe on the rights of nor cause harm to another person, their property, etc. The UN estimated that out of the global illicit drug using population, over 90% of the users are classified as “not problematic.” “Problematic,” is defined differently by each country but usually encompasses those who are drug dependent and/or inject narcotics (World…2011). Does it seem right punish the vast majority of these users who are not likely to harm themselves, let alone others? I contend that drug use, especially in the privacy of one’s own home, in itself is not a crime nor does infringe on the rights of others. Any harm done to others, their property, etc. while under the influence of a drug, is indeed a crime and should be prosecuted as such.
Another way of looking at this is that drugs temporarily alter the thought processes of a person. In the same vein, after reading a very profound book, your thought processes could be permanently changed, as frequently happens when one is “enlightened” through various religious texts such as the Bible, the Quran, the Dhammapada, etc., or even ones as simple as self-help books that are intended for specifically for the purpose of changing ones method of thinking. Television has been shown to drastically alter the way you think, by shutting down parts of the brain responsible for logical thought, possibly leading to bad decisions (Carmichael). So, why, Mr. President is it ok to change your way of thinking through means of visual stimulation through text and ideas, but illegal to change it across the blood-barrier through a means of certain psychoactive substances?
Section IV: The Future
Banning illegal drugs has done little to nothing to reduce the demand of the substances, and thus there is consistent supply of them. There will continue to be supply as long as there is demand; that is simple economics. It is entirely futile to spend money in an attempt to reduce the supply of drugs if there remains demand. If you put one supplier out of business it creates a vacuum in the market, which is then filled by a new supplier. If it is a small scale supply that is removed in a small market, it is likely that the new supplier will be someone who was previously only a user, and only because the opportunity arises does he or she enter the market. Locking up dealers only creates more dealers to lock up. Because of this model, the war on drugs could be waged for an infinite number of years, ceteris paribus, and you would still see people being arrested for selling drugs.
The United States has a certain obligation to foreign nations as the largest spender on illegal drugs in the world to cease giving money that funds the unsettlingly violent drug cartels (World…2012). It has a certain obligation to its people to improve the quality of those illegal drugs, a certain obligation to help those addicted to those drugs, a certain obligation to its people to give them their constitutionally granted liberties. These obligations can be met by legalizing and regulating all currently illegal drugs.
The question still remains: How? There are many ways to go about it, none of them easy, but all of them more morally correct than our current policy. In my closing words, I will outline a method for legalization that I could foresee being effective.
Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimated that the federal and state governments would save $41.3 billion annually from enforcement costs and gain $46.7 billion annually if the currently illegal drugs were taxed similarly to alcohol and cigarettes (“Pros and Cons”). I would suggest you make psychoactive drugs and firearms available to the public only by licensed retailers that operate purely as distributors of those restricted items. They could operate in a similar fashion to liquor stores, only selling to those legally permitted to shop there. The one difference is something which I humbly appropriated partly from your suggested gun policy. When the clerk swipes their ID through the system, it would check for three things: whether they are 21 or older, whether they have been convicted of a violent crime or felony, and whether they have been flagged for a mental health disorder deeming them too unstable for the use of firearms or recreational substances. To protect the privacy of the customer, the clerk would be unable to see any information except a yes/no to all three categories, or more realistically, a green or red highlight. They would also specify to which items they are allowed; separating them into firearms, drugs that may have potential to increase violence such as methamphetamine, alcohol or PCP, and drugs that are potentially dangerous to only the user, such as cigarettes or cannabis. Those who wish to own firearms or use recreational drugs would be subjected to a background check and mental health exam to be entered into the database, somewhat similar to obtaining a driver’s license, in that they are deemed fit and responsible enough to operate weapons or use potentially dangerous substances. I would also recommend strict laws against selling anything in these stores to minors, or those who are not “licensed.” Those who have been denied this “license” may appeal the decision once immediately, and again every six months after, with the appeals for guns being the most strict, followed by the substances with potential of violence inducing behavior, ending with the lowest rung of substances. This system would certainly need fine tuning, as does any.
To operate this system and the appeals, I would recommend combining the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) with the Bureau of Alcohol (ATF), Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to create the Bureau of Drugs and Firearms. Their current budget is $1.15 billion (Bureau of Alcohol). Even if this were to inflate by 30 times or more, it would still be fiscally logical. This would still leave plenty of funds to spend on education to inform the public of the dangers of using drugs in realistic manner. Approach the youth before they are 21 and clearly explain to them that it is never a good idea to use drugs, but if they do choose that route, they have options, some more harmful than the next, some less. Discourage the use of non-addictive drugs, but heavily discourage the use of addictive ones. It’s all about harm reduction. So many young people will try drugs for the first time each year despite it being legal or illegal, despite the dangers, despite the risk. In order to save them from addiction and therefore future treatment costs, they must be told that if they make the decision to use them they use them responsibly; in moderation and have it explained how they can accomplish this. The popular assumption that drug use would increase if drugs were legalized is unfounded. There is no data to support drug use increasing in the case of legalization, but in the Netherlands, which has rather lax cannabis laws, they see cannabis rates lower than their surrounding countries and the US (Breaking). Portugal’s rates plummeted after decriminalizing in 2001 among both children and adults (Greenwald). It is harder to predict the use amongst adults than children, but I firmly believe that drug use amongst teenagers would sharply decline if drugs were regulated and controlled. It is currently easier for children to obtain cannabis than alcohol because alcohol is controlled and regulated and marijuana is not (Armentano). It is indeed a gamble to legalize illicit drugs, but not on the public health, not on the safety of civilians from violent gangs, and not on civil liberties. It is a gamble on the adult usage rate, which may jump in the year of legalization, but with the right education, the right treatment, and the right choices made by the citizens of our great nation, that $46.7 billion collected from taxed narcotics could drop to zero, and that is the day we break out the champagne, or rather – we don’t.
President Obama, I thank you for the time you took to read this rather lengthy letter if you do so and gratefully appreciate any consideration of my words you take in.
Humbly & Respectfully,
We The People