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Kicking the Big One

By Barbara Ehrenreich

An evil grips America, a life-sapping, drug-related habit. It beclouds reason and corrodes the spirit. It undermines authority and nourishes a low-minded culture of winks and smirks. It's the habit of drug prohibition, and it's quietly siphoning off the resources that might be better used for drug treatment or prevention. Numerous authorities have tried to warn us, including most recently the Surgeon General, but she got brushed off like a piece of lint. After all, drug prohibition is right up there with heroin and nicotine among the habits that are hell to kick.

Admittedly, legalization wouldn't be problem-free either. Americans have a peculiarly voracious appetite for drugs, and probably no one should weigh in on the debate who hasn't seen a friend or loved one hollowed out by cocaine or reduced to selling used appliances on the street. But if drugs take a ghastly toll, drug prohibition has proved itself, year after year, to be an even more debilitating social toxin.

Consider the moral effects of marijuana prohibition. After booze and NyQuil, pot is probably America's No. 1 drug of choice -- a transient, introspective high that can cure nausea or make the evening sitcoms look like devastating wit. An estimated 40 million Americans have tried it at some point, from Ivy League law professors to country-and-western singers. Yet in some states, possession of a few grams can get you put away for years. What does it do to one's immortal soul to puff and wink and look away while about 100,000 other Americans remain locked up for doing the exact same thing? Marijuana prohibition establishes a minimum baseline level of cultural dishonesty that we can never rise above: the President "didn't inhale," heh heh. It's O.K. to drink till you puke, but you mustn't ever smoke the vile weed, heh heh. One of the hardest things a parent can ever tell a bright and questioning teen-ager -- after all the relevant sermonizing, of course -- is, Well, just don't get caught.

But the prohibition of cocaine and heroin may be more corrosive still. Here's where organized crime comes in, the cartels and kingpins and Crips and Bloods. These are the principal beneficiaries of drug prohibition; without it they'd be reduced to three-card monte and numbers scams. Legitimate entrepreneurs must sigh and shake their heads in envy: if only the government would ban some substance like Wheat Chex, for example, so it could be marketed for hundreds of dollars an ounce.

Yes, legal drugs, even if heavily taxed and extensively regulated, would no doubt be cheaper than illegal ones, which could mean more people sampling them out of curiosity. But this danger has to be weighed against the insidious marketing dynamic of illegal drugs, whose wildly inflated prices compel the low-income user to become a pusher and recruiter of new users.

Drugs can kill, of course. But drug prohibition kills too. In Washington, an estimated 80% of homicides are drug related, meaning drug-prohibition related. It's gunshot wounds that fill our urban emergency rooms, not ODs and bad trips. Then there's the perverse financial logic of prohibition. The billions we spend a year on drug-related law enforcement represents money not spent on improving schools and rebuilding neighborhoods. Those who can't hope for the lasting highs of achievement and self-respect are all too often condemned to crack.

So why don't we kick the prohibition habit? Is it high-minded puritanism that holds us back, or political cowardice? Or maybe it's time to admit that we cling to prohibition for the same reason we cling to so many other self-destructive habits: because we like the way they make us feel. Prohibition, for example, tends to make its advocates feel powerfully righteous, and militant righteousness has effects not unlike some demon mix of liquor and amphetamines: the eyes bulge, the veins distend, the voice begins to bray.

But the most seductive thing about prohibition is that it keeps us from having to confront all the other little addictions that get us through the day. It's the NutraSweet in the coffee we use to wash down the chocolate mousse; a dad's "Just say no" commandments borne on martini-scented breath. "Don't do drugs," a Members Only ad advises. "Do clothes." Well, why "do" anything? Why not live more lightly, without compulsions of any kind? Then there's TV, the addiction whose name we can hardly speak -- the poor man's virtual reality, the substance-free citizen's 24-hour-a-day hallucinatory trip. No bleary-eyed tube addict, emerging from weekend-long catatonia, has the right to inveigh against "drugs."

When cornered, the prohibition addict has one last line of defense. We can't surrender in this war, he or she insists, because we'd be sending the "wrong message." But the message we're sending now is this: Look, kids, we know prohibition doesn't work, that it's cruel and costs so much we don't have anything left over with which to fight the social causes of addiction or treat the addicts, but, hey, it feels good, so we're going to keep right on doing it. To which the appropriate response is, of course, heh heh.

We don't have to quit cold turkey. We could start with marijuana, then ease up on cocaine and heroin possession, concentrating law enforcement on the big-time pushers. Take it slowly, see how it feels. One day at a time.

Copyright © 1994 Time Inc. All rights reserved.


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