“I have nothing good to say about methamphetamines”, declares Mike Goldsby, a highly-respected local expert in drug addiction, in our local paper here in Humboldt County, northern California. The estimated 1.4 million users in the US would disagree. Productivity-oriented professionals with demanding careers praise the increased alertness afforded by meth. Timber fallers, mill workers, truck drivers, and others in dangerous occupations extol the stamina it provides. The military has always depended upon meth as a source of courage and quick reaction time. Poor people, trapped in multiple low-paying jobs or the exhausting paperwork demands of public assistance, emphasize its empowering and antidepressant effect. people agree that, like other drugs, meth can be fatal. But its high morbidity and mortality, they would add, rest in the fact that its use is illegal.
Like marijuana, also a medicine, meth is a multi-billion dollar criminal industry. There is naturally violence where such huge profits are to be made. As revealed by Gary Webb in his San Jose Mercury News articles on crack cocaine, successful drug networks involve protection and exploitation by government agencies, including law enforcement. Police departments flourish on grants for drug interdiction. The domestic cost of the War on Drugs was $51 billion in 2006. The penal system, increasingly privatized, prospers as well. The public pays an annual $27,000 for each of 2.5 million prisoners. As a society, we are invested in this industry: some cities are almost exclusively supported by their prisons.
In March I attended a conference, “Methamphetamine, Hepatitis and HIV” in Salt Lake City, where drug policy analysts described “set and setting” as determinants of how a drug or medicine will affect an individual. The law enforcement vendetta against meth, and media use of such slogans as “meth kills”, linking it to deviance, disease and violence, provides a hostile setting, and amounts to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Public opinion as reflected in our local Times-Standard op-eds echo the official contempt. One guest opinion praised the policies of Mao Tse-tung for summarily executing drug offenders. Another called it “terrorism,” and suggested soliciting homeland security money. Recent killings by the Eureka police were attributed to the victims’ use of meth, which is rapidly becoming a license to kill. Even Mike Goldsby, in saluting law enforcement’s “vital role in holding addicts accountable” regretted that “there are not enough police or jails to arrest, convict and incarcerate every addict.”
A declaration of war is an open invitation to ignore the rights of individuals in the name of a more urgent destiny. The War on Drugs is no exception. Harsher sentences than for murder, illegal searches and seizures, intrusive urine testing, property forfeitures, disenfranchisement, ineligibility for public support, housing, school loans or food stamps, loss of children: fourth, fifth, eighth and fourteenth amendment protections are widely denied meth users.
Demonization of meth cripples democracy. Involvement in illegal and socially-condemned activities has estranged large segments of the population from political life. Paranoia prevents users from exercising their first amendment rights to express their opinions. Thus, in a democracy already handicapped by apathy, a stigmatized class is prevented from defending their own interests.
This has powerful implications. One op-ed reported that 70 per cent of children in some Humboldt County schools come from “meth homes.” Urine tests at local clinics confirm wide use. Paul Gahlinger M.D., Commander of the Davis County Jail in Utah, observed that his inmates, 65 per cent meth convicts and one-third female, attribute their incarceration not to meth but to the chaotic problems of poverty. They have no plan to stop using. It is evident that meth is endemic, a street medicine used to treat endemic conditions of life in the American culture of speed, performance, achievement, self-absorption, alienation, waste and neglect.
The War on Drugs amounts to a war on our own people. It is contrary to the precepts of Christianity and all other religions, and destructive to the foundations of democracy. We must treat the human conditions that cause suffering, instead of demonizing the medicine that relieves the symptoms, if we wish to restore family and human values to our communities.
In Salt Lake City numerous speakers at the March conference came from a criminal justice background, including correctional facilities, and national D.A. and probation offices.They condemned national drug policy, the “War on Drugs”, in which, they said, not a single skirmish has been won.
A declaration of war brushes aside everyday rules, such as citizens’ rights,in the name of a more urgent objective. Police, who should be the last line of defense, are now the first line of offense. In communities such as ours, the meth stigma is fast becoming a licence to kill.Meanwhile illegal substances continue to be as widely used, and related diseases spread.. In Salt Lake City, law enforcement representatives observed that, regarding the War on Drugs, the U.S. meets the diagnostic criteria for addiction to failed policies. These criteria include: continued use in the face of adverse consequences, the failure to fulfill major obligations to others, and recurrent social and legal consequences.
Over the past 30 years more than a trillion dollars has been spent on this addiction: $20 billion a year. Our prison population of 2.5 million, preponderantly drug offenders, outnumbers many states, at a cost of an annual $27 thousand per prisoner. African American prisoners now equal the number of slaves freed by Lincoln, and live as they did, working as slaves, their families torn asunder.
The war on drugs like all wars targets the poor. Poverty engenders depression, street drugs are powerful anti-depressants. Congress could end the war and free the slaves, banishing the chaos of poverty with the saved billions. That would be truly efficient harm reduction.
ELLEN TAYLOR is a Physician’s Assistant in general practice in Humboldt County, California. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org