December 12th, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

War on Drugs: IN or OUT

I mentioned in comments that I got invited the other day, on no credential stronger than a personal recommendation from a friend and the trivial amount of celebrity I have from this journal, to be a guest speaker at a small, informal liberal political discussion group? Once we got done beating the assigned topic to death, and were still all sitting around, they started throwing questions at me at random. If you've ever seen an open Q&A for a political primary candidate, it was exactly like that. Everybody had an opinion on one or two or a dozen topics, and they wondered whether or not (since I agreed with them almost entirely on the main subject) I agreed with them on every other subject they had a political opinion on. Being more left-libertarian than true leftist, we weren't in perfect harmony, of course. But where I had a different opinion, position, or proposed solution than they did, they were following my arguments for my side with interest, and respect, and I could see them often coming around towards my side ... right up until one of them came up, and then the whole room turned on me. Let's see if the same thing happens here.

We were working our way through various criminal justice subjects. I mentioned in passing that there's an obscure issue, on which my side lost politically years ago, that is still sand in my shorts. Every time I'm in downtown Clayton, Missouri (the St. Louis County county seat), I can't escape looking at evidence that I lost that argument, and I get angry all over again, just as angry as I was years ago when the topic was fresh. My anger over this one isn't going away. What am I talking about? The "new" (at this point it's what, three years old? five? more?) County Jail. For one thing, it's an architectural monstrosity. Not because it's an ugly building, but because it isn't. The County understood, although they shied away and talked all around the subject when asked about it, but still, on some level understood that it said something bad about us that we needed a jail that big, and it is absolutely huge. So they told the architects to disguise it as an office building. And they very successfully did. It's one of the tallest, biggest buildings in Clayton, which is saying more than you'd think, if you're not from here; Clayton is as much a sea of skyscrapers as downtown St. Louis is. If you're looking for it, you can see it as you approach Clayton from any angle. And to look at it from the outside, you'd think it was a corporate headquarters. And that pisses me off.

You see, their emotional need to disguise the Jail is only a symptom of the larger problem here, the one they flat-out denied going into the election for the bond issue that paid for its construction, the one where even when confronted with the facts, the voters (of both parties) preferred the lie. The reason we needed a new Jail was that the previous one, big as it was, was massively, illegally overcrowded, as jails mostly are in America. Overcrowding had gotten so inhumane that the courts were getting involved, were threatening an injunction against locking up any more people without releasing at least as many first. If they were going to keep locking people up, they had to have a new jail. Well, the ACLU did their own study of the problem, and they found out something interesting. They found out that the real reason our jail was so overcrowded was that nearly everybody in there had been waiting, often a year or more, for their trial. Why? Because it was taking them at least that long to get a meaningful interview with someone from the public defender's office. This is a mockery of the US Constitution's promise of a "speedy trial." Because the County flatly will not adequately fund the public defender's office, you're only entitled to a "speedy trial" in St. Louis County if you're willing to plead guilty, or if you can afford a private attorney. If you're poor and refuse to plead guilty, in St. Louis County this is considered sufficient grounds to revoke one of the most important rights in the Bill of Rights. And when the ACLU crunched the numbers themselves, they found that it would cost less to fully fund the public defender's office than it was going to cost to pay off the debt service on those bonds. Fully funding the public defender's office would have let us convict the guilty and move them on to actual prison in a timely manner. Fully funding the public defender's office would have let us acquit the innocent and send them home in a timely manner, as the Constitution requires. Whether acquitted or convicted, getting the overwhelming majority of those awaiting trial out of the County Jail and either home or on to prison would have reduced prison overcrowding sufficiently that we wouldn't have needed the new County Jail. And when the ACLU got front-page coverage for this argument, the radio airwaves, the political forums, and the newspaper op-ed pages and letter columns were deluged in a torrent of scorn. Why? Because the ACLU was proposing that we coddle criminals, that we spend more money on protecting the criminals' rights instead of locking them up. The public reaction pissed me off so much that I'm still angry about it.

So far, so good; my audience was still with me. Then someone asked me what I wanted done about this. Before I could talk, one of the other guys said, "Well, most of those people are in there on drug charges. What we obviously need to do is to get those people out of jail and into rehab." To which I replied, "Fuck that. Fuck court-ordered rehab. Fuck court-ordered Alcoholics Anonymous, too." And already I started to lose them. Being good liberal Democrats, they were deeply and emotionally committed to this idea that drug suspects needed court ordered rehab. Oddly enough, two days later there was an article in the Post-Dispatch trumpeting the success of court-ordered rehab that I think proved my point instead of theirs. The St. Charles County Drug Court, using a carrot and stick approach to make sure that as many drug suspects finish rehab as possible do so, was just given an award for being the most successful such court in America. More of their suspects complete court-ordered rehab programs than any other in America. What's more, it's cut the one-year recidivism rate, which they were very proud of. By how much? Buried way, way down in the article: by less than 2%. Given the tiny sample size, that's not even a proven reduction. At that sample size, 2% less than the control group is statistically identical. By honest methods of statistical proof, they just proved my point, not theirs, that court-ordered rehab programs don't work. I say that they can't work, because court-ordered rehab is a contradiction in terms. People give up drugs or alcohol when they want to go straight, not because somebody else tells them they need to go straight. I didn't have those facts on hand to back up my argument that court-ordered rehab is a waste of everybody's time and money at the time.

So, they asked me, what I wanted to do with drug suspects? "Shoot the users ..." WHAT? OK, now I lost them altogether. The room got ugly, and the shouting started before I could finish the sentence, let alone make my argument. Even though I then laid out my argument, and made it just as well as any other political position I took, this point they were not willing to concede. Nor, I suspect, will most of you. What's more, those of you who know how I feel about the drugs themselves, who know that I'm religiously devoted to Dionysus, the god of theater, madness, and intoxication, are probably scratching your heads and wondering where in the world reality jumped the tracks. But the rest of that answer, when I got to give it, was, "Shoot the users. Or repeal Prohibition. Personally, I'm OK with either one, but the voters won't go for repealing Prohibition, so shoot the users. Nothing else, nothing in between, will work." And what we've been doing, which is everything else under the sun except shooting the users or repealing Prohibition, is destroying this country. Now, once I got it that far, someone who was trying to figure out how a nice liberal libertarian like me could possibly advocate killing people for a harmless social-status crime stopped everybody else from shouting to get a clarification. "Wait," he asked me, "which one do you prefer?" I said, again, that that I call the War on Drugs by its real name, Prohibition, should tell you which one I prefer -- obviously, to repeal the War on Drugs. To adopt the same system that the UK and the Netherlands has, which is that if you walk into a doctor's office showing symptoms of heroin withdrawal, you walk out with a prescription for heroin. Legalize it all, let the users and their families sue the people who make and sell the ones that get proven in court to be harming people. But the voters won't go for that.

So if I'd rather end Prohibition, and I almost had the crowd back with me at that point, how on God's green earth can I justify shooting people for using drugs? Because nothing else works. Because everything else leads to widespread disrespect for the rule of law, to chronic and irreversible police corruption, to rampant witness intimidation and jury tampering, and many other problems, any one of which is guaranteed, over time, to be the death of democracy and freedom. Democracy, trial by jury, a bill of rights, a free market, and all of the rest of the freedoms that make life worth living are dependent upon, can not survive without, honest law enforcement and public respect for the rule of law. What we're doing now, if we keep it up much longer, is going to destroy the Republic. Let me clarify this by laying out all of the alternatives, all of the strategies that might be employed:
  1. Legalize the drugs in question, let the civil courts and the free market sort things out.
  2. Legalize or de-criminalize possession and use, but continue to apply harsh penalties to manufacture and sale.
  3. Maintain minor to moderate punishments for possession and use, and use them to twist people's arms until they testify against the "real" criminals, the manufacturers and dealers. (This is the current American system.)
  4. Impose draconian punishments, nothing less than life in prison and up to the death penalty, for anyone involved in any way in possession, use, distribution, manufacturing, or any other part of the criminal enterprise, whether as customer or supplier, of the drugs in question.
I'm OK with #1, it's what I would prefer, but it will never happen in my lifetime. #2 is very popular among lifestyle liberals and pseudo-libertarians in America. It would be even worse than what we have now. How do I know that? Because that's how the original Prohibition worked. And because there were no penalties for the customers, there was absolutely no way to curb demand, and because so many customers considered themselves perfectly virtuous voters and they wanted the sellers to illegally remain open, the voters quietly acquiesced to a system of rule by organized crime gangs, the famous "machine" faction of the Democratic Party, acquiesced to a system of mafia rule that, no longer than Prohibition lasted, took us almost 40 years before we even got started on freeing the affected cities from, and we're still not done.

You can see for yourself that #3, our current system, doesn't work; so long as (just to pick an example) the total amount of money the government spends combating the cocaine trade exactly matches the total number of dollars per year that Americans spend on cocaine, the cocaine trade isn't going away. Not doing anything serious, anything that would actually make an impression on someone with so little regard for long-term consequences that they'd use a deadly or dangerous drug and consort with organized crime gangs to buy it, puts us in a position where the American taxpayers are equally subsidizing both sides in the War on Drugs, and that's a recipe for permanent warfare. Permanent warfare is a recipe all by itself for totalitarianism, even if you don't factor in the resulting financial incentives for police corruption, witness intimidation and murder, and jury tampering.

So what does that leave? The only thing that has ever worked. There have been countries that have won their wars on specific drugs. Singapore, for example, used to be the worst place in the world for the heroin trade. It had been ground zero for the Opium Wars, after all; they had no resistance left when the heroin trade supplanted opium. Then the new government adopted a get-serious policy about opium and heroin: life in prison without parole on first offense for possession, death by hanging on first offense for sale, conspiracy to sell, or possession with intent to sell. This solved the problem, and in only a few years; Singapore went from being the worst hell-hole in the world for the heroin trade to almost completely heroin-free. But in fact, last week there was a huge diplomatic row between Australia and Singapore over just this law. An Australian drug dealer got caught, in Singapore, with some ridiculous indefensible amount of heroin like 12 kilograms or something, in his hands. Even the Australian government didn't dispute the facts of the case. But Australia doesn't have the death penalty, considers it barbaric. So they applied every diplomatic pressure and threat to try to get this guy's sentence reduced, and the Singaporean government basically told them to piss off, and made no effort whatsoever to even condescend to justifying themselves to anyone who is so stupid they don't know to kill drug dealers. They just went ahead and hanged the guy. Why? Because they know, and they think by now it should be obvious to any honest person, that of all of the ways that have ever been tried by any government bent on eliminating any illegal mind-altering drug, nothing else has ever worked.

So yes, to me, this is on a longish list of political subjects where my answer is, "PICK ONE." One, or the other. Not both. Not some compromise in between. Either do what you're trying to do, or stop trying; anything in between will destroy us as a nation. In, or out; don't stand there with the door open.

Somehow, I doubt any more of you agree with me than agreed with me there.