On November 15, 2018, my wife came home to give me the worst news that I have ever gotten in my adult life. My stepdaughter, Mandy Koblischek, who had been my stepdaughter for the past 21 years, and who I loved dearly, died from a lethal overdose of heroin laced with fentanyl. If heroin was legal, Mandy would still be alive today. To some readers, that last sentence might appear to be a misprint. After all, isn’t America’s strict laws against the sale and use of recreational drugs designed to prevent what happened to Mandy? The answer is yes, but the reality is that drug prohibition, just like America’s failed experiment with alcohol prohibition, has actually exacerbated the problem and its consequences.
There are two facets to this issue which deserve examination, and both complement each other: those being liberty and utility. Human nature, and its requirement to achieve happiness and harmony, is best served by being in a condition of liberty. People who are free to determine for themselves what is in their best interests are more likely to achieve what most of us would consider the good life. Simply put: more freedom, more happiness. All we have to do is look at those countries that have little or no freedom to recognize the truth of that statement. In North Korea, for example, people live in abject fear and deprivation, yet in such a tightly controlled totalitarian regime, where any private expression of discontent with its dear leader will lead to imprisonment or death, there is no discernible “drug problem.” Thus, the only way to eliminate this problem is to totally eliminate individual liberty. Is that a price we are willing to pay?
When talking about freedom and liberty, what does that entail with respect to what actions we may or may not take? What it does not mean is that one can do whatever one feels like, regardless of its consequences to others. Those are the key words: “to others.” Therefore, if you steal, murder or rape, you are transgressing against the right of others to enjoy the blessings of liberty, and those actions are legitimately proscribed by government, which in the best of circumstances, is established to protect those rights.
So how does that apply to the act of taking drugs? First and foremost, taking drugs is something that the individual does to himself, not to others. If freedom is to mean anything, it is to recognize the sovereignty of the individual in his own person. That must come before anything else. The state does not own your life. You do. Therefore, the right to ingest drugs into your own body is a foundational right, and if government has the right to take that away, the door is open for it to take away any and all rights upon a whim; which unfortunately it often does with reckless abandon.
The Utility of it All
When government makes it illegal to take drugs, it is attempting to suppress human nature, and in that it cannot succeed, but only make the problem worse. In my stepdaughter’s case, if she could have received legally prescribed heroin, she would have been ingesting safe doses with clean needles from a provider that would have no incentive to boost its profit by lacing it with fentanyl. The provider would have been a legally sanctioned company that would be shut down by the government if it provided a product that was something other than what was advertised to be, for to do otherwise would be committing fraud on its customers, which in and of itself is a rights violation. By way of example on how that would work: In 2015, The Peanut Corporation of America knowingly sold peanut butter contaminated with salmonella, leading to some deaths. That company no longer exists, and its president is now serving a 28-year sentence.
However, in the black drug market there is no such legal recourse or protection. Operating outside the
law, there is no market incentive to provide a safe, affordable product. Adulteration of heroin with fentanyl is currently the most dangerous threat to the lives of drug users in the United States. But even if a user does not die from overdosing, there are many other harmful consequences, that include violent crime, the spread of AIDS, and legal consequences that can prevent the user from ever having any hope of getting a decent job, housing or education. Just ask anyone with a criminal record for non-violent drug convictions how hard it is to get a good job with a future so they can provide for themselves and their family. Once out of prison such individuals easily fall prey to the neighborhood drug culture from whence they came and must steal or prostitute themselves to maintain their habit.
Ironically, the huge upsurge in recent years of heroin use and deaths can be laid at the feet of yet another government policy gone bad; greater restrictions on legal opioids. As legal opioids become harder to come by for people with legitimate chronic pain issues, the black market in opioids becomes prohibitively expensive or next to impossible to find, leading users to seek the much cheaper and more readily available heroin. That’s precisely what happened to Mandy; thus making her a statistic in a policy which is leading to over 130 deaths a day in the U.S.
There must be a better way
The United States has some of the most draconian restrictions on the sale and use of recreational drugs. Our government spends billions annually in interdiction, criminal prosecution and incarceration. This has fostered the creation of a huge, violent, criminal underclass which has corrupted government both here and abroad. Innocent by-standers die in the crossfire of rival gangs, while innocent citizens die at the hands of their own police in drug busts that have gone horribly wrong. In the process law enforcement has become “addicted” to the constitutionally unlawful practice of padding their budgets with asset forfeiture even if the property owners whose assets are seized are not convicted of any crime.
Meanwhile, the lure of easy money in the ghetto entices our youth to forego legal occupations, where they then spend much of their adult life incarcerated. Annually, there are 1.4 million arrests for drug possession for personal use.
Fortunately, there are some real-world alternatives to the dominant approach of criminalization and harsh enforcement in the United States. In 1999 Portugal had the highest rate of drug-related AIDS and the second highest rate of HIV in the European Union. In response it decided in 2001 to decriminalize drug use and the results have been dramatic. The number of people voluntarily entering treatment programs rose dramatically, while the number of HIV infections, drug overdoses, incarceration rates and AIDS have plummeted.
The Portuguese model, while falling short of full legalization for adults, does provide some empirical data to support a policy which treats drug use as a public health problem rather than a crime problem. Its approach is to offer treatment, rather than incarceration, and makes sterile syringes readily available. Possession for small amounts for personal use are non-prosecutable but trafficking in large quantities which causes death or serious bodily harm carry prison sentences, similar in concept to the peanut butter example cited earlier.
To give some examples of how the Portuguese model has fared vs. the U.S. one, consider the following statistics:
Overdose deaths in Portugal declined by over 80 percent after decriminalization.
In 2017 more than 72,000 people died of drug overdoses in the United States, which equates to 21.7 deaths per 100,000. But in Portugal in 2015 there were only three overdose deaths per
100,000, making the U.S. death rate from overdoses more than six times that of Portugal.
Incarceration rates for drug offenses in Portugal fell by over 40% from 1999 to 2016.
Switzerland is another example of how a less draconian approach to drug use has yielded some significant beneficial results. In the 1990s whole sections of the most beautiful cities in the country, Zurich and Bern, were over-run with drug users who lived in unsanitary tent cities, dubbed Needle Parks, where rates of infection and deaths from sharing needles soared. In response, the Swiss implemented one of the most controversial drug policies in the world, which included dispensing heroin, and providing treatment programs, which in turn resulted in a dramatic reduction in deaths, crime, and an end to the notorious Needle Parks. Opioid related deaths declined by 64% in the past two decades, while the number of people testing positive for HIV dropped from 3,000 in 1986 to fewer than 500 in 2017. In short, the Swiss adopted the approach of fighting heroin with heroin.
Not surprisingly, Switzerland does not have the same fentanyl problem as the United States. That’s because addicts who obtain heroin from the state know exactly what’s in it and have no incentive to get it on the streets. In fact, the street business has dwindled to nothing, as the program instituted by the Swiss has made its existence obsolete.
Other benefits include a huge drop in opioid related crimes. In 1993 the country had about 20,000 cases a year. Today, the average is 5,000 cases annually. Even more stunning was the decline in burglaries. According to M. Savary, a Swiss drug and harm reduction expert, “We reduced theft [burglaries] by 98%. It sounds like a miracle, but you can do it.”
Some final thoughts
While neither Portugal nor Switzerland offer perfect panaceas in how to best address the drug problem, just moving the needle, so to speak, towards decriminalization has obviously offered some very salutary results. If my step daughter had been living in one of those countries, I have every reason to believe she would be alive today, continuing to live a productive life full of hope and promise.
In the United States there is a presumption that someone who is addicted to heroin is unable to function as a productive citizen. Yet as we can see by the results in Portugal and Switzerland, it is the illegalization of heroin which makes that the case, because to procure heroin or other potentially lethal drugs on the black market, the addict is always hustling to get their next fix from uncertain and unreliable sources. If legally and safely obtained in a clinical environment, the addict receives a maintenance dose which allows him or her to function normally and fully capable of handling day-today responsibilities such as a job and raising a family.
While that is not the ideal situation, it is certainly preferable to prohibition. I can attest that before Mandy died, she was raising a teenage son, and holding down a job making well into the six figures, ironically enough, as a marketing director for a for-profit drug rehab company. As a recovering addict she was uniquely qualified to fill that role. Yet Mandy’s death took place at a time when her work gave her daily reminders of where she came from and where she could end up if she relapsed. The fact that she did relapse only belies the incredible challenge all current and former drug addicts must face on a daily basis; a challenge which cannot be met and overcome by drug prohibition, but which on the contrary only exacerbates the problem. Such is the price we must pay in America’s endless and futile drug war.
Lance Lamberton is a writer and Chairman of the Cobb Taxpayers Association who lives in Cobb County, Georgia, and who served as the deputy director of the White House Office of Policy Information under President Reagan. This article is dedicated to the memory of Mandy Koblischek, (1976 – 2018)