Small World: Waging a real war on drugs

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Fifty-seven deaths occurred in 2014 in Maine from heroin overdose, the Portland paper reports. The next day, the paper reports that the governor wants to call out the National Guard to deal with the emergency — in exactly what way is left blank. Meanwhile the legislature has added funds for additional agents, prosecutors and judges. “Chump change,” the governor calls it.

Plainly, the governor and his legislative opponents are adhering to the position that the state’s drug epidemic should be dealt with through tough-minded enforcement of laws on the books. As with most issues in this country, there are two fiercely contested answers to the question, “What is to be done?” The other side calls for increased medical care and rehabilitation for addicts.

The debate is unresolved because neither answer, whenever and wherever applied, seems to take care of the depressing problem. Our jails are crammed with drug offenders and yet the totals of druggies rise relentlessly. The number of Mainers seeking treatment for heroin addiction from 2011 to 2014 rose from 1,115 to 3,463 according to the paper. How many emerged clean is not stated.

Normally, in seeking to deal with an epidemic of the proportions of the American drug problem, the first step is to determine its origins. Why are so many people — largely young folks — caught up in this epidemic? How exactly did it begin and how did it spread?

Not surprisingly, there doesn’t seem a single, off-the-shelf explanation. Each case is different in its components. But, to generalize broadly, there are two elements, which cover virtually all cases:

First is the erosion of societal restraints. It used to be that the family filled this role and when it failed, the immediate community picked up the responsibility. In many drug-infected areas the family no longer exists as an entity; too often the head of the household is herself or himself a victim of the drug culture. Life on those terms hardly presents the context for defeating the enemy in a “War on Drugs.” Additionally, the government — from the federal to the local level — is scorned as ineffective and useless by conservative folks, who propose no substitute.

The other popular incentive for turning to drugs, it seems to me, is that the chemicals help fill the gap of expectation in modern American (and many foreign) lives. Work — when it exists — doesn’t supply a sense of value and fulfillment. For too many, trading in drugs provides a greater sense of achievement and, usually, cash that is missing from their lives.

Consequently, the dreams fueled by drugs are a more attractive option — despite the risk of imprisonment and the dark cloud that will cast over the future of hardened and amateur drug users with little distinction. There is little realistic hope for choking off the imported supply of cocaine or heroin (or, where illegal, marijuana). The prospect, it seems, is that the supply will contrive to satisfy demand despite efforts at interdiction and the epidemic will grow progressively worse.

Is nothing to be done? That is, nothing with a prayer of success?

Nothing short of a re-ordering of our scheme of values. The first component is a shift to new leadership that takes the problem seriously and keeps at it relentlessly. For some victims, a tighter social safety net is a first move. Vastly improved education can help. And, most importantly, work that preserves dignity and hope. For the worst cases a kind of work camp (like the New Deal CCC) can provide refuge. All of this should be financed by higher taxes on those abundantly able to spare cash and a transfer of our national objectives away from foreign terrorism and similar enemies and toward those who burden the home front with their drug-driven, destructive behavior.

Making milder drugs like marijuana legal and sold by state-approved outlets with a physician’s approval is probably an idea that will be widely adopted.

The need demands that our society treat politics as if we were actually engaged in warfare: No party politics, no cynical carping. Instead, a nation united in recognition of a deepening threat and clear danger to out future.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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