Location: United States

I am a graduate student at the State University of New York at Binghamton studying education and history.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

A Discussion and Analysis of Current U.S. Drug Laws

*Based on a philosophy paper I wrote for class my freshman year at Binghamton University. It was edited by my Professor Jason Mallory and I have since expanded upon it to form this article.

Today, the utopian vision of a classless society seems outside the realm of possibility. The United States, the world's most advanced and prosperous nation, is among the farthest from this utopian ideal and is growing still farther. In a society where labor is exploited, one's loss being another’s gain, those at the top will act shamelessly to ensure the status-quo remains. Capitalism in the United States serves as a textbook example. There are many tools which those in the upper-class use to repress those beneath them (a debatable proposition, which I will have to set aside but which, for the time being, we will assume to be true). By weakening the lower class, it makes it less likely, by providing them with little resources, that they should ever rise up to challenge the wealth and power of the American elite. One element of weakening the lower class is by criminalizing actions statistically prominent to their class, coupled with heavy enforcement in areas of concentrated poverty. Without enough violent criminals to successfully (or as successfully as the ruling class may deem necessary) fracture already impoverished communities, non-violent offenders must be targeted as well, hence creating criminals. The US drug laws are one of the most efficient manufacturers of criminals and crime. Those who manufacture, traffic, distribute and use drugs become criminals, a status which no doubt weakens their already fractured social and economic standing. The tax dollars paid to punish these non-violent offenders weigh far more heavily on the lower and middle classes, many of whom are forced to fund the system which undermines their own liberty. Combine this system with the fact that the United States, the most “advanced” civilization in the history of our world, has the highest incarceration rate on the globe, and the system of social control becomes ever more apparent. The ruling class utilizes their power, to ensure that they remain in power.

The use of drugs by human beings has occurred through thousands of years and in thousands of civilizations. The legality, morality and ethics of drug use are debates which, no doubt, must carry a philosophical overtone. Let us, for instance, ask the question from a libertarian perspective. If one engages in a chosen activity, one which does not negatively affect the liberty of others, where then, does the unaffected victim derive the right to infringe on the liberty of those who choose to partake in drug activity? Many argue that those who use drugs may in fact be causing direct or indirect harm to others, a point to which I will later return. As to whether or not one is harming their self by using drugs, the user must be entrusted to act in his own best interests, less of course, we advocate the style of government that makes our decisions for us. Boxing, Hockey, Motocross, Ultimate Fighting and countless other sports can be seriously damaging to the health of those who partake in said events. Nevertheless, if they feel the joy of the activity outweighs the damaging effects, who is to tell the individuals not to partake? Even informing someone of the dangers posed by conscription into the armed forces, far more dangerous than most illegal drugs, can result in imprisonment, as is evident by Supreme Court Justice Wendell Holmes Jr’s decision in Schenck v. United States.

It is hypocritical to say that our country is built on and embraces the concept of liberty, when in fact, the liberty of the ruling class is to infringe upon the liberty of its subjects, when and how it sees fit. Nevertheless this is a philosophical argument, one to which there is no absolutely right or wrong answer. We should turn away then and discuss in more detail the way in which drug laws create criminals and create crime. One must imagine for a moment that drugs are legal in the United States. If a young man, high-school dropout, no trust fund and a meager salary from Wal-Mart or any of the Forbes Magazine labor-exploiters, decides to experiment with hallucinogenic drugs. Keep in mind the culture that so many wage slaves live in today, never owning a home, unreliable transportation and little money for consumer goods, working for a corporation where upward mobility is virtually non-existent, in a materialistic culture of private ownership, such as our own. With little aspiration for a better future and entrapment in a monotonous routine of laboring with little sense of accomplishment, an escape from the realities of everyday life may be a welcome development. Were drugs legal, the young man who chose this path could be open about his activities not having to feel the ridicule and stereotyping that drug laws manufacture. In our society he would be ostracized, most likely alienated from his family, friends and loved ones; he may lose his job or worse, be arrested and become a criminal. The same could be said for a middle class or even upper middle class student, one of the rare examples of someone outside the lower class who must feel the presence of the totalitarian shadow. The class of privilege in our country, however, are excused for crashing their cars and remembering nothing the next day (Pat Kennedy), because their drug problems are of a different nature, a point to which I will later return. Nevertheless, a student who becomes involved with drugs can become a felon (depending on the seriousness of the case), can lose all federal funding and potentially be forced to drop out of school, dooming him/her to the cycle of low wage jobs and lower class status. Repeal the drug laws and you have one less felon and one more student (the scenario may seem like a stretch, however I and many of my friends are very familiar with, and close to, a person who constitutes a perfect example).

So long as there are drugs there will be drug users and with them inevitably come drug dealers, one of the few irrevocable truisms when studying drugs and drug use throughout human existence. Even a country with extremely draconian drug laws, such as our own, can not prevent the human consumption of drugs. Therefore our own society, taken with countless others, proves that drug laws do not work. Why then, do we choose to create criminals out of ordinary citizens with the knowledge that the practice is not curtailing the use of drugs?

The current drug laws are a mirror image of the 18th Amendment to the US constitution and the Volstead Act, which created a federal prohibition on the manufacturing, distributing and possession of alcoholic beverages, just one of the many drugs humans have chosen over the centuries as a means of intoxication. Before prohibition became law, those who manufactured, distributed and possessed alcoholic beverages were not criminals, unless of course, they infringed on the liberty of others in the process. Nevertheless, prohibition did not curtail any of these activities. While deterring a small minority of the population from alcohol consumption, it also had the pleasant side effect of criminalizing many citizens who were not criminals before the 1920 act was passed. Thus, we can state, encountering little if any rational dispute, that prohibition served almost exclusively as an act to create crime. By sending the manufacturers and distributors of alcohol underground, the government forced the formerly lawful industry to adopt underground methods. Is it such a stretch to compare drug manufacturing, trafficking and distributing to that of alcohol under prohibition? As history has shown, not only do such laws turn ordinary citizens into criminals, they also force the entire industry underground, creating a crime based industry that nurtures criminal activity and excretes the problem for society to face.

It seems that all too often we hear stories of drug related violence; however these acts of violence are not drug related because the offenders were using drugs. The stories are drug related because forcing the drug industry underground creates violent criminals. If drug laws were repealed, dealers would not resort to violence, largely because the “dealers” would be convenience stores, supermarkets and specialty stores. Legalizing drugs would also open up government funding to researching drugs and educating the populace on their effects, bringing FDA approval etc. It is relatively unlikely that a street dealer will hand you a brochure with your purchase indicating responsible dosage and the effects of exceeding the recommendations. Legalizing drugs would make recreational drug use safer. Such developments would help the government set rules for drug use, such as the amount safe to drive under the influence of, and so forth. There is no doubt that education and awareness, which lead to responsible use, would exponentially increase.

Mention of the legalization of drugs, even decriminalization, will no doubt be met with strong opposition from the post- Passion of the Christ Mel Gibson-types among us. There are a number of oppositional points, several of which I would like to consider and discuss, the first being that legalizing drugs will infringe on individual liberties. Many concerned citizens are worried that those under the influence of drugs will harm not only themselves, but innocent law abiding citizens as well. They fear that a drugged up lunatic may run over their daughter while she rides her bike home after school, or that they may be subject to attack from a user in a drug induced rage. They are forgetting that one mind altering drug, alcohol, can impair one as much as, if not more than, most illegal drugs. Drunk drivers kill people with cars, as well as attack fellow citizens as a direct result of alcohol intoxication. Still, people recognize the illogicality of a move toward a second prohibition of alcohol. Furthermore, a majority of people feel that the benefits of alcohol use outweigh the negative effects which are prone to happen. Those who cause the negative effects are punished accordingly under the law. At the same time, those of us who use illegal drugs and do not cause negative side effects are still being punished. One must remember that the legalization of drugs would not make crimes committed under the influence of drugs legal as well. If someone under the influence of drugs were to crash their car, they would lose their driving privileges, if they started a fight, they would be arrested. The penalties, however, could be focused on those who cause problems for society, not those whose drug use is harmless.

Perhaps if the many now illegal drugs had been introduced into mainstream US culture at the same time alcohol was, most of them would still be legal today. The problem lies in the fact that many of the illegal drugs in widespread use today have been introduced into our mainstream culture relatively recently. Therefore, a great portion of society, being such loyal subjects, are ignorant to the way that many of these drugs actually effect the human mind – such as those misinformed individuals who see marijuana as a “gateway” drug and thus, equate it with heroine, Professor Mallory adds. Since the lawmakers dictate and propagate the populace with theories that drug laws are necessary for our own safety, much of society will smile and nod. When the media, a powerful branch of any governing apparatus, shows people under the influence of marijuana running over little girls on bicycles, allowing children under their watch to drown in pools and even standing up their poor grandmother for dinner, a fear and repulsion toward those who use marijuana is instilled in the populace. Knowing that marijuana, which can lead to such awful tragedies, is one of the least harmful illegal drugs, one can only imagine the horrors that other illegal drugs would plague society with.

We are educated from grade school that drugs are harmful and that those associated with drugs are bad people – the DARE program being a more obnoxious example where kids are forced to recite such song lines as “doing drugs is stupid, say no! My mind is mine!” The middle and upper classes get the greatest amount of drug education (or brainwashing, depending how you spin it) and thus, become the most wary of those associated with drugs; lower class people, on the other hand, receive less drug “education” and are less likely to adopt the stigma many people higher on the social food chain, have against drugs. Such disparities turn classes against one another, create stereotypes and instill fear amongst the populace against one another. Noam Chomsky articulates this point in his 1997 article Drug Policy as Social Control, arguing “The more you can increase the fear of drugs and crime and welfare mothers and immigrants and aliens and poverty and all sorts of things, the more you can control people.” This is exactly what drug laws create, criminals, crime, poverty and fear of those involved with the aforementioned creations. Drug laws are an awesome tool of those with social control on their agenda, because not only are the lower classes held down by the laws, they are held down because stereotypes associate them with drugs and therefore associate them with crime, making the poor more feared by, and thus, more alienated from, society.

The objection to legalizing drugs on the grounds that drug users will injure others is based less on facts than on fears which are fostered amongst the population by relentless propaganda from the government and its media apparatus. In addition, drug laws will not curtail drug induced crimes, because as history has irrevocably proven, drug laws do not hinder drug use. The only way to prove such arguments, however, would be legalizing drugs (or at least decriminalizing them). Such a step is unlikely, however, so long as the government is able to continue manufacturing fear and stigma of drugs and drug users.

Yet another popular argument on the banner of those who oppose the legalization of drugs is that such an action will destroy society because everyone will become addicted to drugs and hence, stereotypically lazy. One can imagine such a world where people stop educating themselves, stop working and live their lives in a haze of intoxication as society slowly decays. Much of this vision is again associated with stigmas which are instilled in the populace. People see drug users as lazy, criminal, welfare recipients who are inherently evil by nature. One making such arguments becomes caught in a chicken or the egg dilemma. Are these people overwhelmingly poor because they are illegal-drug users, or are they overwhelmingly illegal-drug users because they are poor?

Those with drug related crime records are criminals only because drugs are illegal; their financial situation, in many cases already poor, becomes dire as they are often turned down from all but the lowest wage jobs and can not qualify for government subsidized assistance, loans or many forms of public housing. The stereotype of drug users being parasites on society largely comes from the stereotype of poor drug users, many of whom will never qualify for a job outside a degrading post for an exploitative corporation and a sub-living wage. Professor Jason Mallory adds that “capitalist society creates a ‘cesspool’ of poor people, brutalizes them in prison and then asks ‘why are “criminals” so violent?’” Many, of course, would argue that these excuses are simply copouts used by those who want to abuse the system. These arguments, however, are brought about mostly by those wealthy enough to have medical benefits so that they may partake in the pharmaceutical, hence, legal drugs to make their moods improve. Meanwhile, the only type of mood enhancing drugs the poor may partake in are those that the government insists remain illegal and hence, the users criminals. Take this as an example: in early May, 2006 Representative Pat Kennedy, son of Senator Ted Kennedy, was involved in a single car accident. The police report included an observation that Kennedy appeared to have been drinking and that his ability was impaired, yet a sobriety test was not issued, the police labor union officials said that officers were told not to give Kennedy a sobriety test and he was given a ride home. In a CNN report, Sgt. Kenneth Weaver said he saw Kennedy’s vehicle “traveling at a high rate of speed in a construction zone and also swerving into the wrong lane of travel” with it’s lights off. When Weaver approached the vehicle, which had crashed head-on into a vehicle barrier, he noticed his “eyes were red and watery, speech was slightly slurred, and upon exiting the vehicle, his balance was unsure.” Kennedy claims to have owed his disoriented mind-state to prescribed medications, none of which, he claims, did he take more than the recommended dosage of. Nevertheless he admitted that he has long suffered from depression and addiction. “I struggle with this disease, as do millions of Americans” Kennedy said. Millions of Americans do struggle with the “disease,” as Kennedy described it, of addiction and depression. Unlike Kennedy, however, was not asked to step down from his position as a House Representative of Rhode Island, and was not criminally charged with any type of substance abuse, as his problems are associated with prescription and hence, socially acceptable, drugs. Millions of Americans who have much more to be depressed about, but can not afford the luxurious drugs that a rich healthcare plan will provide, become criminals for similar or even far lesser infractions.

With all this said, stereotypes of the poor are attributed to those who use the same types of illegal drugs as they (the poor) use. Thus, people who use drugs of this nature are equated with the stereotypes of the poor in capitalist society. Drug users, along with the other “enemies” of society, welfare mothers, poverty children, immigrants and so forth become a scapegoat for the problems which the billionaires of the Fortune 500 cultivate.

We may conclude then, that drug laws in the United States are in fact necessary. However, they are not necessary to protect people and certainly not to protect individual liberties. Rather, drug laws in the United States are necessary to keep the lower class and the disappearing middle class suppressed and divided. This may seem completely necessary, or it may seem a violation of you rights, depending of course, on what class of society you come from and how susceptible you are to indoctrination.

Personally, I feel that in a society so strongly rooted in concepts of liberty and justice, if someone chooses to spend their free time using substances that affect no one but their own self, there is no just reason that they should be prevented from doing so. If, however, they should go so far as to infringe upon the rights of others while enjoying these substances, they should no doubt be subject to the same penalties as anyone who carried out such acts of injustice. Until they go so far, however, I can not see any rational justification for laws that punish them.


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