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Images Ā© AnthonyJess

Confronting the Challenge of Drugs

Images Ā© AnthonyJess

 

From 1979 to 1989, I was figuratively a ā€œcolonelā€ in the war on drugs. As assistant counsel to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee responsible for drug enforcement, I participated in creating the national drug strategy machinery and the White House ā€œdrug czar.ā€ I staffed Congressā€™s abandonment of the marijuana decriminalization of Jimmy Carter and the embrace of drug war crackdown under Ronald Reagan. I helped Congress respond to the explosion of crack use and investigated the CIAā€“Contra cocaine connection. Most notably, I played a central role in Congressā€™s enactment of mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking and the infamous 100ā€toā€1 crack versus powder cocaine sentencing disparity.

For the last 30 years, I have been working for alternatives to drug prohibition that focus on effective treatment; meaningful prevention of misuse of drugs; and most importantly, honoring the dignity, humanity, and autonomy of both those who suffer from addiction and those who choose to use drugs. I promote strategies to minimize the violence and corruption around the drug trade, to end the catastrophe of mass incarceration in the United States, and to advance harm reduction for people who use drugs. My identity as a Friend has been integral to this work.

In 2020, the world is in the midst of a lethal epidemic in which hundreds of thousands of people are dying annually, worldwide, in connection with their use of drugs. Tens of millions suffer from addiction. Hundreds of millions of people use illegal drugs worldwide. The problems, of course, are not simply death from overdose, or the agony of addiction. The problems of drug trafficking crimes (smuggling, bribery, murder, money laundering, cartels, and paramilitary forces) and incomeā€generating crime to buy drugs (fraud, prostitution, embezzlement, theft, robbery, drug selling, etc.) are well known. Those crimes are often blamed on drugs, but if the use and distribution of drugs were legal and regulated that crime would be largely eliminated. Most problems related to drugs (spread of disease, homelessness, unemployment, alienation, neighborhood decay, family breakup) are more a consequence of the social and legal constructs of drug production and policing and ā€œdeviant use,ā€ than the simple use of drugs themselves.

Most problems related to drugs (spread of disease, homelessness, unemployment, alienation, neighborhood decay, family breakup) are more a consequence of the social and legal constructs of drug production and policing and ā€œdeviant use,ā€ than the simple use of drugs themselves.

Drug policy has dramatically evolved since the 1980s and 1990s in understanding that shaming drug users does not help them survive; it actually magnifies their suffering. Public health professionals understand that prohibition of the legal use and production of drugs does not save lives or reduce injury or addiction; it increases riskiness and death. Law enforcement professionals now understand that their prohibition enforcement effort is not reducing violence and increasing public safety; it increases violence, enriches criminals, and strengthens networks of public corruption.

Drug enforcement policing strategies alienate huge communities of young people, African Americans, Latinx, and other people of color from our justice system. Drug enforcement has permeated schools thus alienating the most vulnerable students from school administrators and teachers. Policeā€run D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) programs led to more drug use by teenagers than no prevention programs at all. In countless families, antiā€drug ideology has alienated children from their parents. Drug enforcement and the criminal justice system have exacerbated racial injustice.

Most drug users never have an addiction problem, but they always are running risks that their drugs are tainted by the criminals who are the only suppliers due to U.S. laws. Sadly, all who consume illegal drugs are forced to subsidize criminality, frequently contributing to massive violence in Mexico and Colombia and chronic poverty in U.S. cities, and financing global traffic in weapons and global corruption.

Nevertheless, there is also cause for optimism. Data shows that even as American marijuana policy is moving from prohibition to legalization, marijuana use by teenagers is declining. Cigarette use has been declining. HIV transmission rates among drug users have gone down since the 1980s. More importantly, societyā€™s understanding of drug use is shifting, and support for compassionate and effective strategies is growing. As the stigma of a drug habit is being reduced, Americans are reconceptualizing drug policy. Increasingly instead of focusing on ā€œstrengtheningā€ drug enforcement and antiā€drug programming, the public is supporting the realistic policy objectives of saving lives and reducing suffering.

As the stigma of a drug habit is being reduced, Americans are reconceptualizing drug policy. Increasingly instead of focusing on ā€œstrengtheningā€ drug enforcement and antiā€drug programming, the public is supporting the realistic policy objectives of saving lives and reducing suffering.

Friends have traditionally abjured the use of alcohol and other stimulants, including drugs, which can lead the mind and soul away from knowledge of the Light, and away from the state of peace that allows for appreciation of the sacred. Now, many Friends recognize that many, if not most people, can use alcohol socially and recreationally without it interfering with their spiritual development. Even though we understand that alcohol is a major factor in motor vehicle crashes, violent crime, suicide, accidental injury, and death and that alcohol is the cause of tens of thousands of deaths from cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, and other diseases, we recognize that alcohol can be socially beneficial and used responsibly. Friends have been slow to acknowledge that marijuana, opioids, psychedelics, and other drugs generally less harmful than alcohol, also have a range of beneficial uses, and do not warrant prohibition.

I believe that because of Friendsā€™ historic association with the temperance and antiā€drug movements, organizationally we have been too slow to confront the social, cultural, medical, and legal catastrophes of drug prohibition that exacerbate the violence, degradation of the human spirit, and injustice that Friends abhor. Friends are fundamentally opposed to the use of violence and coercion to change human behavior, even for the worthiest of ends. I think Friends need to speak out against a drug control regime founded on coercion and violence. If we are to remain true to our deepest values in responding to the presence of drug use in our communities, we must confront the drug problem guided by our values and not by law enforcement, prosecutors, and the military. For too long, Friends have been absent from the resistance to the degradation of humanity that is our antiā€drug policy.

For 100 years, the United States, the League of Nations, and the United Nations have been crusading to end drug use. Over the decades, the vision of the drug problem has largely been shaped with ethnic and racial prejudice: Chinese male opium smokers seducing White women; Black men high on marijuana or cocaine seducing or raping White women; homicidal Hispanic marijuana smokers; Black mothers abandoning their children for crack; hyperā€violent Hispanic cartel leaders. The central strategy in response has been to use coercion, violence, and punishment to stop use and eliminate supply. Not only has the strategy not worked but it has also been counterproductive. The market consequence is that drugs have become extraordinarily valuable. Thus, illegal drug organizations generate enormous revenues. Like all businesses, security is necessary for inventory, receipts, and production facilities. Of course, mechanisms for business dispute resolution and leadership succession are also needed. Excluded by Congress and the United Nations from the protection of the law and the courts, the business problems are addressed by resorting to violence, requiring extensive armories. Around the globe, our antiā€drug strategy has led to warā€like military campaigns against the wellā€armed criminal gangs or paramilitary forces that control the cultivation, processing, and transportation of drug crops like opium, coca, and marijuana. These campaigns are ineffective, but tens of thousands of citizens are dying every year in Mexico, Colombia, the Philippines, Guatemala, El Salvador, Jamaica, and the United States.

Annually, in the United States, more than one million people are taken into custody for possessing drugs. Hundreds of thousands more are arrested for cultivating, manufacturing, or distributing drugs. In these arrests, the suspects are invariably handcuffed, and police point loaded firearms at them. Suspects are manhandled and verbally abused to intimidate and humiliate them. While many are released, hundreds of thousands are detained before trial, often for months. Such detention usually leads to loss of employment, loss of housing, and family breakup. Hundreds of thousands are convicted and imprisoned annually for drug offenses. Millions of spouses and children are displaced and impoverished. The criminal records of those arrested or convicted become lifetime barriers to employment, education, housing, credit, and often voting, and even nutrition and family formation. None of these address individual drug problems or societyā€™s collective problems.

Efforts to control the transportation of drugs often use trafficker profiles that include race and ethnicity as criteria to stop and search travelers. The use of race and ethnicity to justify suspicion of criminal conduct is an affront to human dignity, and hundreds of thousands of persons are detained and searched who have no connection to the drug trade.

We are plagued by mass incarceration. In 1972, our nationwide rate of incarceration was 161 per 100,000, which grew to 767 by 2007, driven by the crackdown ideology of the war on drugs. Fortunately, we are seeing declines in that incarceration rate, but the United States still holds about one quarter of the worldā€™s prisoners, despite being only 5 percent of the globeā€™s population. Incidentally, the racial disparity in incarceration is quite pronounced in states with significant Friends populations:

States with the highest black/white differential in incarceration rate (per 100,000 adults) are listed below. This data is from the Sentencing Project, 2016 (source: ā€œThe Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons,ā€ report by Ashley Nellis).

A primary cause of the phenomenon of mass incarceration has been the patterns and practices of drug enforcement. Resolving the unwarranted racial disparity in criminal justice cannot be accomplished without ending drug enforcement as currently carried out.

Drug enforcement relies upon a vast system of informants. Essential to drug investigations, an informant creates a false persona and a web of falsehoods in order to earn the trust of the target. Hundreds of thousands of persons are betrayed annually. A widespread network of deceit and betrayal endangers the bonds of society. A primary cause of the phenomenon of mass incarceration has been the patterns and practices of drug enforcement. Resolving the unwarranted racial disparity in criminal justice cannot be accomplished without ending drug enforcement as currently carried out.

Eradication of drug crops has led to the steady expansion of cultivation into new, remote, often environmentally sensitive regions, including national parks, national forests, designated wilderness areas, and wildlife preserves. Antiā€cultivation strategies, such as aerial fumigation with herbicides, endanger human health and the environment. In South America, this antiā€drug strategy has been a major factor in Amazon deforestation, contributing to global climate change.

Providing harm reduction for drug users is as commonsensical as employing lifeguards at swimming pools and beaches. We eliminate the spread of HIV and hepatitis C virus infection through drug use when we assure that persons who inject drugs always have sterile syringes. We reduce wounds by teaching safer injection techniques. We should provide drugā€checking test kits to alert for the presence of fentanyl and other dangerous contaminants. Distributing naloxone (trade name: Narcan) to all people who use drugs and their families and associates saves the lives of people who use opioids from accidental overdose and death. All these measures communicate to unhappy or isolated drug users that their lives are valuable and worth caring for. These steps are the best bridge to healthcare, drug treatment, and recovery. Arrest and jail are not treatment strategies; they are humiliating and shaming. Overdose prevention initiatives and syringe services programs, because they fully honor the humanity of the people who use drugs, are consistent with building the hope and selfā€respect that are essential ingredients for successful recovery.

The ideology that equates total abstinence with successful treatment has prevented the adoption of the currently most effective opioid treatments, which are medicationā€assisted. The proclivity to relapse after incarceration or treatment is a central feature of addiction. Today, in many programs, relapse is grounds for removal from treatment and frequently leads to further prosecution and imprisonment. Isnā€™t it absurd that those who relapse, demonstrating a more severe case of the disease of addiction, are subjected to greater punishment or removed from treatment?

In helping to end the war on drugs, Friends will affirm their confidence in the healing power of the Light to restore to health those who are troubled.

Education to prevent the use of drugs is often weakened by dishonesty about the harms and benefits of using drugs. Much antiā€drug education disrespects the dignity and intelligence of the intended audience.

Strategies and language that increase the stigma of being a person who uses drugsā€”while potentially discouraging initiation into useā€”interfere in pursuing recovery. The stigma also discourages family members from sympathizing with and helping their loved ones and discourages health professionals from caring for those with substance use disorders. We need to challenge those whose statements and actions reinforce stigma and encourage coercion, degradation, or violence toward those who use drugs.

Children and adults in our meeting communities are experimenting with or regularly using drugs and alcohol. Pastoral care committees should be alert to the unmet needs of those in the meeting, which might involve the use of drugs or alcohol, and help find appropriate counseling or therapy. Ultimately, responsible and moderate use of alcohol and other drugs is shaped by culture and community norms. The honest sharing of experience strengthens community responses to drugs and alcohol. But honest sharing of experienceā€”when that experience is illegalā€”can be dangerous legally and professionally. Meetings can provide safe spaces for honest sharing of experience and support for harm reduction. Provided with accurate information, trustworthy and respectful guidance, and the opportunity for reflection, individuals are likely to make decisions about how they will use drugs that will protect themselves and their communities. In helping to end the war on drugs, Friends will affirm their confidence in the healing power of the Light to restore to health those who are troubled.

Eric E. Sterling is executive director of Criminal Justice Policy Foundation in Silver Spring, Md. He is co-clerk of the Ministry and Worship Committee of Bethesda (Md.) Meeting and a graduate of Haverford College.

Posted in: Drugs, Features

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3 thoughts on “Confronting the Challenge of Drugs

  1. Peggy Q says:

    City & State
    San Antonio
    Better late than never.

    1. City & State
      Chevy Chase, MD
      HI Peggy,
      I saw your comment on the FJ website responding to my article in the January Friends Journal about drug policy.

      I was interested in your thinking about my being ā€œlate.ā€

      In 1976, I testified for marijuana decriminalization in Pennsylvania when I was still a law student, and then operated a NORML chapter in my office from 1977 to 1979. In 1981, I helped write a draft bill to legalize marijuana, and consulted with drug legalizers throughout the 1980s. In 1987, I attended the first meeting of the Drug Policy Alliance (then called the Drug Policy Foundation.) In 1989, I started working full time to legalize drugs. I debated then U.S. Senator Joe Biden about legalizing drugs at Georgetown University Law School in October 1989 (I was in favor).

      Would you still characterize my work as ā€œlateā€?

  2. Kenneth Bernstein says:

    City & State
    Arlington VA
    I know how involved with this issue my college classmate Eric has been over the years. Glad to see how his understanding has deepened. I highly recommend this article.

    Ken Bernstein also Haverford ā€™73 and now at Langley Hill Monthly Meeting, where I used to serve on Ministry and Worship as Eric does now

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