One of the great ironies of postmodern times is the regulatory powers of the state that have expanded over society. Nowhere is this more fixed than in the drug war, an experiment in social engineering that has discouraged drug use in America and is about as effective as state ownership of the means of production that once was encouraged in the Soviet Union.
The consequences of this policy are the financial underwriting of criminal organizations, the profound subversion of democratic institutions in Latin America, the corruption of police and judges, the loss of legal protections once treasured in American justice, the alienation of a substantial segment of an otherwise law-abiding population, and the stuffing of court and prison systems with a million arrests for drug offenses every year. But despite this enormous effort, which assaults basic principals of civil liberty the mission has not been attained with teenagers having more difficulty finding beer than most illicit drugs.
One author Dirk Chase Eldredge (1998) proposes a sensible alternative that would place the sale of now illegal drugs in state run stores, taxed at a level that would deprive the gangs of revenue while giving funds for treatment and prevention of drug abuse. The nation seems against any such experiment. America whose main mission in the twentieth century was to defeat totalitarianism abroad appears determined to employ its vast ability to stamp out private vice at home. Forgotten is the older wisdom that in a free land the cultivation of virtue should be left to the institutions of civil society.
Forgotten is the older understanding that civil society has its victories, no less remembered than those of the state. According to conflict theorists, the idea that the law is a social institution that operates impartially and administers a code that is shared by all is a cultural myth promoted by the capitalist class. These theorists see the law as an instrument of repression, a tool designed to maintain the powerful in their privileged position. Because the working class has the potential to rebel and overthrow the current social order, when its members get out of line they are arrested, tried, and imprisoned.
For this reason, the criminal justice system does not focus on the owners of corporations and the harm they do on the masses, but instead directs its energies against violations by the working class. The violations of the capitalist class cannot be totally ignored for if they become too outrageous or oppressive, the working class might rise up in revolution. To prevent this, occasionally a flagrant violation by a member of the capitalist class is prosecuted. The publicity given to the case helps to stabilize the social system by providing visible evidence of the fairness of the criminal justice system (Ritzer, 1992).
Usually the powerful are able to bypass the courts altogether, appearing instead before some agency that has no power to imprison. Such agencies are directed by people from wealthy backgrounds who sympathize with the intricacies of the corporate world. This means that most cases of illegal sales of stocks and bonds or price fixing are handled by “gentlemen overseeing gentlemen”. In contrast, the crimes of the masses are handled by courts that do have the power to imprison. Drugs use that is committed by the poor threatens not only the sanctity of private property, but ultimately the positions of the powerful.
So the use of deterrence is used. The purpose of deterrence is to create fear so that others won’t break the law. The belief underlying deterrence is that if people know they will be punished, they will refrain from committing the crime. Sociologist Ernest Van den Haag (1975) a chief proponent of deterrence believes, like many Americans, that the criminal justice system is too soft. He advocates that juveniles who commit adult crimes be tried as adults, that parole boards be abolished and that prisoners be forced to work. But does this deterrence work?
Evidence is mixed, but those who claim that is does not work like to recall examples such as Prohibition in the 30’s to give evidence the war on drugs is not working. Hard core use of mind changing drugs remains firmly entrenched in our society and is part of the American way of life that affects both users and nonusers. The news media continue to sensationalize drug busts in which law enforcement agents seize imported as well as homegrown marijuana, and raid secret, illegal drug labs in suburbia as well as the inner city.
School kids learn how to say no to illegal drugs, and some experts now say that treatment and rehabilitation of cocaine abusers would be more effective than law enforcement efforts in reducing the number of cocaine addicts. Meanwhile, Congress funds major health care reforms by increasing cigarette taxes and public service announcements that remind us of the perils of drug use. The national effort to control and prevent the use and abuse of illegal drugs or the “War on Drugs” is a continuing but more subdued issue. A lot of individuals are saying the anti-drug endeavor is running out of steam.
Others claim that illegal drug use and abuse are no longer major national priorities as they appeared to be in the last decade. Maybe so but just because it is not in the spotlight does not mean it isn’t present or reduced by any means. One just has to look at the prison system crisis and money spent on this war to know differently. Expenditures of $10 to $13 billion annually since 1988, is not always evident that such a war is being won (Office of National Drug Control Policy, 1994). There are many that believe the war on drugs has already been lost.
The United States can certainly be described as a drug-oriented and chemically dependent society. To some extent we have been so in the past and the future promises more of the same. Not only are millions dependent on the legal recreational drugs such as alcohol and tobacco, but countless others are addicted to physicians-prescribed drugs and the allegedly more dangerous substances distributed everywhere from the salons of the rich and famous to the street corners of the segregated inner cities of our nation whose members are the poor, the unemployed, and the underclass.
Now that the safety of our airlines, railroads, highways and merchant marine fleet is threatened by the abuse of alcohol and other drugs, expensive drug detection programs have become standard procedures in the workplace as well as among colleges, professional, and even some high school athletic teams. Numerous officials, politicians, judges, entertainers, prominent sports figures, and business executives have been exposed, or voluntarily revealed themselves, as cocaine snorters, heroine smokers, alcoholics, tranquilizer dependents, pot puffers or more commonly today, multiple drug abusers.
In may ways drug abuse and dependency have become as American as apple pie. But if answering the single question of should we continue the “War on Drugs”, in my opinion, we should not. Instead focus on the problems and answers of abuse and addiction rather than just arresting and throwing individuals in jails and prisons where the cure to this problem is not available.