It is a cliché in Washington that the war on drugs has seen a comeback, thanks almost entirely to the efforts of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Whether that comeback is as big as advertised is a matter of some debate, as Sessions has actually been more dovish than his predecessors in some respects. However, what is not debatable is that Sessions’ rhetoric has given every indicator that, were it entirely up to him, the purveyors and purchasers of illegal drugs would be handled with all the pity of Inspector Javert crossed with Torquemada.
This — predictably — upsets libertarian and liberal critics of the war on drugs, and not unreasonably. Many such critics’ practical objections to the war on drugs’ effectiveness are unanswerable. At the same time, it is difficult to defend the idea that Americans should be left entirely to the tender mercies of dealers. Those interested in liberalizing drug laws respond to this point by reasonably pointing out that regulation would surely follow any legalization of drug markets.
Until recently, this was a perfectly rational and defensible idea. Unfortunately, current events make it increasingly difficult to place much faith in the idea that regulation would actually work to moderate the brutality of merchants of drug addiction.
Why? Well, consider this hypothetical: Suppose a Walter White-esque drug dealer managed to create a type of illegal drug that was so efficiently sold on the black market that it took mere decades for its number of users to quadruple not just in a particular area, but nationwide. Imagine, too, that this drug was so mentally and physically debilitating that its introduction to an area would tank the number of gainfully employed people in that area by 20 percent. Oh, and imagine that the dealers of this drug were so wealthy and influential that they were able to pay trusted pillars of every community to sell it, rather than the usual ne’er do wells that stereotypically fit the definition of drug dealers.
As you may have guessed by now, this isn’t actually a hypothetical. Rather, according to a new study by the Brookings Institution’s Alan Krueger, what has just been described is the story of the nationwide opioid epidemic, with just one twist: the drugs in question weren’t illegal. They were perfectly legally prescribed by doctors to patients, even though those doctors were functionally treated like street corner dealers by pharmaceutical companies. As a result of those companies’ Breaking Bad-like tactics, opioid prescription has quadrupled nationwide in the past 20 years, and as a result, the most acutely affected areas have seen their labor force participation drop by 20 percent. In other words, fully one fifth of people who could have jobs and be productive members of society aren’t because they were prescribed opioid medication, whether they actually needed it or not.
And here’s the kicker: While this crisis has seized the attention of policymakers and leaders all the way up to President Trump himself, the only people who have actually tried to regulate or prosecute the glorified drug dealers responsible — that is, big pharma — have been state-level Attorneys General and legislators. But at the federal level? You could hear a pin drop.
Now, here’s the really inconvenient question for the proponents of drug legalization: knowing that this is how Washington deals with the abusive practices of people who sell perfectly legal drugs right now, how could we possibly trust that they would be any more stringent with the purveyors of illicit substances, once those drugs were legalized? That is, once cocaine and heroin are being sold by Pfizer rather than Scarface, is there any reason to believe that Washington would hold Pfizer accountable? Based on what we’ve seen with the opioid epidemic, it’s hard to answer in the affirmative. Therefore, it would seem that the only way to get Washington to take an epidemic of drug use seriously is to make the selling of the drugs in question subject to criminal penalties.
This is a bad policy outcome for everyone. Criminal law is a poor tool for dealing with the humanitarian crisis of drug addiction, not to mention one fraught with unintended consequences. At the same time, the paralysis of regulators and legislators at the federal level in response to drug dealer-style activity makes regulation an equally unfeasible solution. Thus, while critics of the drug war might bemoan the tough behavior of Jeff Sessions, what they should instead by doing is pointing out that the sphere of public life where those tactics are being applied is misplaced. The worst accelerants of addiction in modern society are not hiding in the seedy underbelly of the criminal world. They are operating in plain sight with the smiling face of corporate and medical complicity.
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