In conversation with Stone earlier this week I had promised another topic for my next post. That will have to wait for another time due to sad news I have received from a friend since.
This is penned at the behest of a good friend of mine. It concerns a subject that I have been aware of but have deliberately steered clear of. The chief source of my aversion to the topic is that it has become something which hits rather close to home for me.
It is, in some small way, an ode to a young man named Jason. My friend informed me that Jason had died of a heroin overdose one evening in the past week. Jason had been an employee, a valued member of a team, as well as a friend who was always willing to provide help and support in situations outside of the workplace. Unless you were in frequent close contact with him it might never be known that he was an addict. I'm told that as the addiction tightened it's grip it became more and more obvious that the young man had a problem. I never met Jason in person, yet I know him as well as I know his story. Jason died at the age of 28, leaving a pre-school aged daughter behind. I myself have an adult child of the same age group who is likewise afflicted with this scourge. I have for some time been prepared to meet similarly tragic news regarding his fate. I have accepted the fact that it is not a question of if, but only when I shall receive such news. The circumstance has moved well beyond any point at which I might have any impact upon the outcome.
To the vast majority of people living in this country today Jason’s case is only a statistic. One more in the daily rising toll of people, young and old alike, who have fallen victim to the needle. They don’t know his name or his face or the first thing about him. He is just another number in one of many categories of statistics. Human beings may comprise a part of any set of statistics, but being a statistic is dehumanizing. Usually when I write about matters of current public concerns I like to be able to cite some numbers, provide some factual support for any argument I may try and make for or against anything. I could do that in this instance, for surely there are a wealth of statistics available on the war against heroin trafficking, addiction and yes, alas, fatalities. I won't do that. If you want statistics you can find them on your own, it won't be difficult. This a human problem so I will try to relate it in human terms.
This is a challenging topic for me in more ways than one. Aside from my own personal connection to the problem there are other elements that create a difficulty in addressing the issue. As a libertarian I have views concerning narcotics that will not square well with many people and families who have had their lives upended by the explosion of availability, affordability and lethality of this drug. I have always been deeply troubled by the hypocrisy inherent in the drug laws of this country. The multi-billion dollar industry of alcohol makers have managed, through their well funded lobbying efforts and their contribution in tax revenues to the public coffers, to purchase for themselves a legitimacy. Do not mistake me. I have no ax to grind with these companies. They make a product that has been around a very long time, it is legal and in steady demand. I don't begrudge them making a profit from it nor do I begrudge any citizen’s right to consume the product. Of the many follies of federal legislation in our history the Prohibition looms as one of the most colossal in its failure and consequence.
Many of the substances which have also been banned by governments, state and federal alike, were at one time, although perhaps frowned upon, entirely legal to possess and consume. At the federal level the Food and Drugs Act of 1906 was the start of legal controls and prohibitions over many of these substances. This was born out of the same era that saw the rise of the Women’s Temperance League and other popular movements which ultimately provided momentum to the passage of the 19th Amendment. Pharmacology was by our current standard of measure a science still in it’s evolution. As the name of the Act itself would imply it was concerned more with matters of food, labelling and standards of purity. Where this law began to address drugs was the requirement to list in labelling the presence of any of ten drugs which were deemed under the Act to be “addictive” and/or “dangerous”. Included in this list were morphine, opium, cannabis and…? Care to guess? Why yes! Alcohol also made the list. A little over a decade later came the Prohibition.
Thirteen years, millions of dollars and thousands of deaths from organized crime later the Prohibition came to an end. Alcohol was once again legit and quickly became a boon of tax revenues while still greater restrictions were placed upon the rest of the 1906 roster of ten. Thus resumed and expanded the long history of the public treasury being enriched by the vices of the populace. Further evidence of the governing philosophy that organized crime is not so bad when one considers the alternative. Alcohol was still recognized as being addictive and dangerous, but since it was in demand and presented such an attractive opportunity as a generator of tax revenues it was given a pass. More than a pass: a blessing from the State.
Even though the dangers of alcohol were recognized these were somehow diminished when it could, under the wise and benign regulation by the State, be controlled by the State. If one wished to sell the product legally it became necessary to pony up the price of admission in the form of licensing fees. As a bonus the sale of the product could provide an ongoing revenue stream with the addition of excise taxes upon every sale. Maybe alcohol wasn’t such a bad thing after all. Of course it was still necessary to counsel moderation, but once the coins had landed in the treasury not much further thought was given to this.
One may argue that if the revenues were the sole motivation in lifting the ban shouldn’t the same logic and motivations have extended to those other banned substances? It is a valid question and it is easily answered following the simple laws of economics. Supply and demand. These other substances and their effects were not as well known, thus they were not in demand. This and the fact that the long, slow poisoning by alcohol might pass unnoticed until such time as the damage was done. Morphine, opiates and cocaine were substances where their abuse carried with them greater and more immediate lethality. Drink too much liquor one night and in most instances the greatest consequence might be the dreaded hangover. Overindulgence of these other substances would often leave their users dead, or given their more virulently addictive qualities would put them on the fast track for the same result. Certainly more quickly than could be accomplished with alcohol. The other reason for this inconsistency of reasoning was that unlike opiates or cocaine, which typically required some importation of raw materials with a knowledge of and facility for their refinement, alcohol could very easily be produced in one’s basement, kitchen or barn. Too many opportunities for the State to be cut out of it’s share of the action.
That leaves the question of cannabis on the list. In those times the knowledge of cannabis and it’s effects were nowhere near as widespread as today, so there was nothing even remotely like the demand for alcohol. So why the continued prohibition and increased penalties associated with it? There were two reasons primarily, one climatological and the other sociologic. Cannabis could be fairly easily cultivated throughout much of the continent. Where it was largely unknown in many quarters of the country there was a certain familiarity with the effects in the south. The south where the descendants of slaves were familiar with it’s use and where segregation and racial bigotry were not only practiced, but state sanctioned. There were a handful of redneck dixiecrat politicians, devout segregationists all, who didn’t much cotton with any of them coloreds gettin’ all hopped up on the “reefer” and running around raping the white women. It happened folks. Look it up. The chief consideration in placing prohibition on cannabis was rooted in the racism that was still approved and exercised in the American south of the time.
Though there is more reasoned debate on the subject today the fact remains that our modern day drug policies are the bastard children of those formulated in the ignorance and greed of the early part of the last century. Couple this with the trend over the past 40 years or so of creating multiple bureaus and agencies with overlapping authorities, each determined to justify and sustain their existence with ever more tax dollars fed to their respective budgets, and you have the bloated and largely impotent State mechanism referred to collectively as “the war on drugs”.
If the growing rise of heroin abuse and deaths are any indicator one might suspect that this war, if not already lost, is certainly not going in our favor. The reward and results for the dollars spent are severely wanting. The conduct of this battle seems to overlook the most rudimentary laws of economics at work here. There is a demand for the product and a supply to meet or exceed the demand that has driven the cost of the commodity downward. Lots of product, readily found and easily affordable. All of the requisite parts for a dynamic economy. The heroin trade has emerged like a deadly but smart virus. It is potentially lethal to its hosts, but not so much so as to bite off the hand that feeds it.
I’ll let you all in on a little secret. I was a teenager in the 70s. In those years before the age of “just say no” marijuana was plentiful and it was cheap. It wasn’t (usually) any where near as good as a lot of today’s product, but a healthy ounce could be had for 35-40$. There was a steady demand and a more than adequate supply to meet it. Like a lot of other people my age in those years between 1975 and 1981 I consumed bales of it. I grew up not in California or New York but in one of the most waspish corners of the Midwest. Flyover country. Young people, not all but many, liked smoking dope. We had no interest in heroin, wouldn’t know where to find it and quite frankly I think most of us were scared of it. That was something that you only found in places like New York or LA. It was something you saw portrayed on TV cop shows like Kojak and The Streets of San Francisco, or in movies like the French Connection. There was no demand for heroin and, at least to best of my knowledge, there was little if any supply of it. At least in my part of the world there wasn't.
We look at where we are today and have to ask just how in the hell did we arrive here? Another component in modern economic activity is marketing. Good marketers are people who couldn't scare up the jack for law school. They are professional bull shit artists whose sole purpose on the planet is to convince people that they need and want things that they didn’t even know they wanted or needed. Maybe that is a little bit of an oversimplification, but hopefully you can appreciate the spirit in which it is given. Another function of marketers is to make a careful study of the demographics and dynamics of a given market, be it geographic, generational or otherwise. From this study they try to identify where their greatest number of prospective buyers reside and where and how they do business. Now given the magnitude of today’s heroin trade one has to conclude that somewhere in our population there was that latent demand for the product. From there it is not a giant leap to figure out that there was some keen marketing at work to identify and then exploit that target market. It all stands to reason, doesn’t it? Would we be where we are today if this were not so?
If we continue to connect the dots in this exercise we can begin to find some of the answers. Not all, but some. The vast majority of heroin around the world originates from southwest asia, though there are now significant amounts produced in Mexico and other central American countries. I don't suppose that it is any coincidence that since this plague has descended upon us we have been in a state of perpetual war in….where? Southwest asia. You know, places like Iraq, Afghanistan. Surely you’ve heard of them? Then there are our nominal yet suspect allies in the region. Places like Turkey. Couple this with an administration of the last eight years whose enforcement on our southern borders was suspect at best. Mexico has a nominal government in Mexico City, but it is common knowledge that vast segments of the country are run by drug cartels. And who knows how many there are in the Mexican government that are in the pocket of those same cartels? More than a few, I suspect.
These are your shrewd marketers. They have been making a handsome living off of their drug exports to the US for decades. They have no love for our federal authorities. Our agencies are a clear and present danger to their livelihood. They have a common distaste for the Norte Americanos shared with the growers and producers of heroin in the aforementioned southwest asian countries. From the sheer standpoint of economics this is a marriage made in heaven. The growers need to move their product to sustain their revenues, many of which we must suspect will go to fund their asymmetrical campaign against the west. The cartels have the distribution system in place to one of the single largest markets for drug export on the planet. Heroin usage had reached a point of a nearly all time low. The cartels continued trucking marijuana and cocaine, but those demands were also shrinking. The popularity of the cocaine derivative, crack, and domestic manufacture of crystal meth and the growing popularity of prescription opioids was really beginning to put a drag on the potential of continuing to grow their American market.
In the commerce of any commodity when sales grow soft marketers begin looking for other sales opportunities. So what did the cartel’s marketing department see in us? A contracting economy, or at best a stagnant economy. An administration who demonstrated no will for a vigorous enforcement on it’s southern border. A population with growing segments deprived of opportunities, beneficiaries of government handouts to sustain them at a level just above despair. More and more people out of work, on disability or some other form of assistance. And an increasing number of older Americans, many of them even high profile, demonstrating a tendency for addiction with prescription pain killers. This was the product of a pharmaceutical industry and medical community that, intended or not, created a demand for the product. So much so that there became a growing trade in the trafficking of these. The problem inherent in this was that these were already items subject to federal regulation and control. Once the lid was off of that bottle the authorities already had some mechanisms in place to effect a crackdown.
Now enter the heroin producers. The cartel provides a steady client in wholesale distribution to supply the retail market. They have found a solid customer with established credentials and capital liquidity. The cartel can flood the market with so much supply that the market price is driven downward by fierce competition between so many retailers. Now all of those people who had fallen prey to opioid addiction could find a much cheaper and much more readily available fix in heroin. As the competition for the growing market grows more fierce retailers start looking for that edge. That brings us to these increasingly lethal additives like fentanyl.
Any questions? There are no doubt some other details left out here. I never said I had all the answers, but this pretty well explains how we arrived here. I don't know the way out, I’m sorry. The libertarian in me says that ultimately the responsibility lies with the individual. Whether its alcohol or crystal meth or crack cocaine or huffing spray paint, the addictive personality is going to find something to feed the addiction. Some people can drink and some people can't. Usually they are the same people who should avoid drugs and, impaired or not, getting behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. Not for their own sakes, but for ours. I think part of the solution is to be found in a total rethinking of our drug policies. But that is only part of the equation.
I am sorry for your loss, my friend. The only thing that could save Jason from himself was Jason himself and sadly the same can be said for all of those who have fallen to this epidemic. My only other suggestion would be to appeal to their patriotism. Instead of pissing away your hard earned dollars, or benefits as the case may be, lining the pockets of foreign drug lords you should instead support your hemp growers local and keep that money right here where it can do more good. It may be a lot more than $35 an ounce these days, but we’re growing some pretty good shit right here in the US of A. There are some individual states coming around to this, a hopeful sign. Legalizing heroin is an idea that is a long way from being accepted. As much as I may agree with the emotional argument that it is a substance too dangerous to be legalized, I also understand that prohibitions do not work. They only create criminal elements who will fill the demand on an assessment of risk/reward. Legalization might remove part of the reward, but in this instance we'd only be exchanging one drug lord for another.
One possible part of the solution, and it is only part, is if not to legalize then at least to decriminalize possession. Make it so that the medical profession (private practice; not government clinics) may legally administer the drug under controlled and monitored conditions. I don't mean to suggest that these would be opened as a profit center sustaining long term use, rather this could be performed in conjunction with a legitimate treatment program to help the addict recover from their addiction. The monies being spent on the DEA, ATF, FBI and a whole host of law enforcement agencies both federal and local would be dollars better spent towards resolving the problem. When you have too many laws you end up with too many cops. But then that is a whole other issue...