William Urban: How we lost the war on drugs – Monmouth Daily Review Atlas
This must be among the most contentious issues in American politics. Everyone has an opinion and everyone is tired of talking about it. So we continue to straggle along, cursing that the problem is still here and not seeing a way to end it.
Like every other nation, we had two ways of dealing with narcotic drugs — to eliminate its sale and consumption, or to educate people why it is wrong or dangerous. Education usually failed because people are human, and there is nothing more exciting than to do something which is forbidden. Also, because so many forbidden practices are so enjoyable, at least at first.
The historical precedents are so numerous as to almost defy listing. The most famous was Prohibition, which was intended to solve a number of problems simultaneously — alcoholism was tied to wife-beating, unemployment and poverty. Enacting national prohibition was a major goal of women seeking the right to vote; they promised that this would lessen corruption in politics, reduce prostitution, and reorient our morals and ambitions.
Nothing of the sort, happened, of course. As it happened, quite a few women liked alcohol, and they were ready to flaunt any law intended to keep it from them. That went along with all the rules of the matrons who had fought for the right to vote — short skirts, dancing, and sexual liberation. Had Carrie Nation lived to see this, the woman who had taken off her corset and picked up a hatchet would have been disappointed: The Women’s Christian Temperance movement had given way to “Anything Goes.”
The drugs of that era were cocaine, heroin, and alcohol. Efforts to crush all three helped the Mafia to wealth and power, and politicians proved very willing to look the other way in return for payoffs. This went to prove that little ever changes completely and certainly not easily.
This does not mean that there have been no successes in the efforts to fight drugs. Crack cocaine was abandoned after its users realized how many of their friends were dropping dead. Cigarette smoking went from so universal that even non-smokers had ashtrays in their homes to where it is rarely seen in public. I remember my students in Yugoslavia in 1986 being so struck by seeing the effects of smoking there that almost all had quit by the end of the semester — even though early on they had strongly resisted the idea that the sunken chests and sallow cheeks of the people they saw in bars had any connection to excessive smoking.
We have yet to see the effects of legalized marijuana on illegal sales, but with street-corner prices undercutting the state product and the much stronger varieties being offered make us skeptical. However, with the Border Patrol fully occupied just processing the extraordinary number of illegal immigrants, it has less ability to stop the flow of strong drugs (especially fentanyl) into the country.
Then there is the meth problem. Although “Breaking Bad” was great TV, it seems to have done little to slow the garage-production of a very dangerous product. Fires in household labs and teeth falling out of users’ mouths might have an impact eventually, but right now meth seems to be everywhere.
Do you doubt it’s here? Ask any high school student who would be likely to know who the drug dealers are. Marijuana is main-stream and heroin (especially if laced with fentanyl) is ever more popular. Catching the dealers in the act is hard, but neighbors know when people are sneaking through their back yards to score some smack. At least, their dogs know.
Teachers often notice behavioral changes, though lack of attention is as common among teenagers as are weight gains or losses, and mood swings. So teachers are rightly cautious about making inquiries as to why.
Efforts to stop drug production at its source have failed miserably in Columbia and Mexico, leaving those nations largely in the hands of criminal cartels. Efforts to limit sales in the United States contributed to the rise of gangs which fought it out to control the market. Chicago — to take one well-known regional basket-case — has failing neighborhoods, failing schools, and rising crime rates. There are many causes for this, but several are tied into the efforts to curb drug sales (suburban residents drive to the south and west sides to buy drugs, just as their ancestors a hundred years ago went to Cicero to get booze). Ironically, successes in jailing the drug lords meant that power went to neighborhood gang leaders who have no sense of restraint.
Nobody knew what to do, so they cut the police budget.
William Urban is the Lee L. Morgan Professor of History and International Studies at Monmouth College.