Drugs are bad, but they’re good enough

There’s an interesting debate going on now about the nature of our drug laws.

If you look on the Odessa American’s website and read some of the comments to the Kopbusters sting and related articles, between the specifics of the Yolanda Madden case and the hoax itself, and ignoring a lot of abusive language, there’s a conversation about illegal drugs, law enforcement and the criminal justice system, and what should be done about it.

Maybe we’re at a place where we can talk about the issue without shrillness or hyperbole, because everyone can admit something definitely isn’t right.

There are some good reasons for keeping things as they are. In the words of Mr. Mackey, “Drugs are bad, m’kay?” Even substances with fairly mild short-term effects cause serious health problems after years of regular use. Legal drugs, and those with legitimate uses like methamphetamine and opiates, are still incredibly dangerous when self-prescribed.

Most people do behave worse with inhibitions removed than otherwise. Those of us who value freedom and choice can still admit that an addict has a value system chemically altered and an ability to choose hampered.  Probably the world would be a better place if no one ever got intoxicated, but this is a fanciful hypothetical and must be regarded as such.

Illegal drugs are associated with other inarguably unacceptable activities. While it might be hard to connect a gang-member to a particular shooting, it isn’t hard to throw him in jail for the rock of crack in his pocket. It’s much easier to arrest someone for having something than for doing anything.

Finally, making a thing illegal does stop many people from doing it. For all the reputation national alcohol prohibition in the ’20s has as being a complete failure, it was successful in reducing alcohol consumption.

But during that same time, organized crime increased; violent crimes increased. Less people were picked up for vagrancy and more for bootlegging, less for domestic abuse and more for murder. So what is reducing consumption good for?

Today, as bad as gang violence may get in East L.A., it’s nothing compared to what Ciudad Juarez is experiencing, nothing compared to what Colombia has suffered from its various drug cartels. A young man dying in an alley of an overdose is a fruit of drug use, but a young woman caught by a car bomb in Mexico is a fruit of drug prohibition.

It may be easier for law enforcement to put bad people away by throwing the book at them for drugs they possess, but it also creates an entirely new class of criminal: those who’ve done nothing wrong.

A person smoking marijuana is no more harmful than a person drinking a beer, and probably less so. Why spend resources to capture and incarcerate or otherwise punish a person who has as yet done no harm? Why, in a world of murderers, rapists, arsonists and thieves, should seizing large quantities of a substance earn high prestige? Because there’s a dollar-value attached to it?

Law enforcement officers have a very difficult job, and most do the best they can at it. However, prohibition laws have an inherently corrupting effect on police. Drug use is not plainly immoral, the drug trade is impossible to meaningfully curb, and the business is highly lucrative. Rare is the person who’d look the other way to let a rapist keep terrorizing people, but doubling your paycheck to let through something that will probably get through regardless? Pinning an unrelated homicide on a murderer leaves some other crime unsolved, but why not plant drugs on a known drug dealer if you can get away with it? The result is the same, it’s less messy, and you get recognition for benefiting society.

I’m not saying the majority of cops behave or think this way, but there’s a temptation to subvert laws that doesn’t have to exist. There are police resources, court fees, and prison cells wasted on people who have yet hurt no one, and it’s hurting our country.

Yes, a meth addict will make poor decisions, and may behave in a way that will endanger others. Certainly, long-term use is dangerous to his or her self. But it’s enough to arrest him for immediate danger, not possible danger. Because certainly, people cooking meth in their homes and settling arguments with guns instead of through the courts is dangerous, too.

There’s no easy or good answer, to this or most things in life. Alcohol probably has an overall degenerative effect on our society. But, prohibition’s effect was worse, and we have rightly chosen the lesser evil, regulated and taxed it. Doing so hasn’t made the country a utopia or solved all problems in the criminal justice system, but a modern Al Capone can’t build an empire with alcohol, either.

We pray for miracles; we can only legislate practicalities.

What we have now isn’t good. Changing our approach won’t be, either, but it will be better, and hopefully that’ll be good enough.

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