Editorial: Prohibition, Punishment and Plano, Texas 7/24/98

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10. Editorial: Prohibition, Punishment and Plano, Texas

This week in Plano, Texas, 29 indictments were handed down in connection with a heroin distribution "ring" said to be responsible for the deaths of at least seventeen mostly young, mostly affluent members of the community over the past four years. Among those indicted were at least fourteen Plano residents, all under 23 years old, who were themselves users and part of the extended circle of acquaintances of those who died. If convicted, each of these young people faces at least twenty years behind bars.

Reaction in the community, at least as reported in the media, is mixed. Many people have taken the hard-line attitude that such punishment will "send a message" to Plano's young people that the community disapproves of such behavior, even if their only connection to drug dealing involved "scoring" a hit or two for a friend and fellow-user, or, just as likely, scoring regularly for fellow-users as a way to finance their own habits. Others seem shocked that these kids face life-destroying sentences as punishment for, essentially, their own addictions. On ABC TV's 'Nightline,' the question was asked, almost incredulously, whether incarceration was a sensible solution for kids who, but for the grace of God, could just as easily have wound up as one of the seventeen dead "victims."

Busting addicts who re-sell small amounts of their drug of choice to pay for their own addictions, and thus staving off painful withdrawal, is nothing new. What is unusual here is that the young people involved are not underprivileged and black but well-to-do and white. The drug war, it seems, besides disproportionately impacting minority communities, also serves to highlight the racism pervasive in our society. An eighteen year-old African American who is addicted and sells drugs is a criminal, a pariah and a menace. But when that 18 year-old is white and middle-class, he is a kid with a problem. And suddenly, the thought of making him pay for his addiction by putting him in a cage until he is a hardened and embittered middle-aged man does not seem to make much sense.

But regardless of the ethnicity of those involved, the Drug War, working as designed, punishes even those who most of all simply need help. There is very little in the way of filtering mechanisms built into mandatory minimum sentences that would separate out the big-time criminal from the desperate addict. And while it is argued that weight requirements, the parts of the law which say that you will get x-number of years for possessing or selling x-number of grams, are meant to serve this purpose, that is really not the case. Because over the past few years of drug war hysteria, the reach of conspiracy laws have expanded to the point that now, almost anyone who is even tangentially involved in anything that looks like a "system" of distribution can and will be held responsible for enormous amounts of drugs, real or imagined, no matter what their actual role in the crime. Even if, as appears to be the case with some of the defendants in Texas, they were simply scoring for friends in an effort to finance their own pathetic addictions.

In response to DRCNet's media alert about this story this week, I received a call from a British activist, a woman who has spent the past eleven years advocating for the rights and the health of people living with AIDS and people living with heroin addiction in England. She wanted an answer to the following question: "Why is it," she asked, "that people in the States are so irrational, to the point of insanity it seems, when it comes to drug addicts? I've been told that it springs from some religious fundamentalism peculiar to America, but as a religious person myself, I rather doubt that Jesus would've sought to punish the most vulnerable among us. What would ever make people think that locking people up for their whole lives to punish them for their addiction is either moral or pragmatic?"

She had me. And although I have never believed as some do that fundamentalism is at the root of our punitive drug war, it is clear that the United States treats its addicts with a harshness and a self-righteousness unequaled in other Western democracies. It is also true that there is an element of religious fundamentalism in the U.S. which is largely absent in those nations.

In considering these facts, and in looking for the connection between them, it occurs to me that while fundamentalism is not the cause of our national obsession with punishing drug users, and in fact such treatment seems quite irreligious, it is likely that to some extent at least, the two spring from the same place. That is, some people flock to religion, just as others become willing to abusively punish, in response to a world which seems to be spinning out of control. It is a reaching for certainty... for moral authority. And it is borne of frustration and a seeming inability to make sense out of chaos.

But while religion, and the fervor that it can incite, has been used by some over the course of history as a weapon against the non-believing, religion is, in its essence, a beautiful and empowering institution. The drug war, on the other hand, and the senseless rush to destroy those who are in reality the weakest among us, operates in a blind-spot. It is a dragon chasing its own tail inasmuch as it expends most of its energies attempting to stamp out that which it has itself created.

In Plano, seventeen kids are dead primarily because they had no idea of the purity level of any particular batch of heroin. They did not, could not under a system in which labels and information are an impossibility, have any idea of the dosage they were using, or whether this bag was more or less pure than the bag they bought the last time. It is also very likely that few of the kids who were taking heroin in Plano had any idea what to do for a friend in case of an accidental overdose, and it is a near-certainty that they had never heard of and had no access to Narcan, a drug which arrests overdose nearly instantly. And, judging by the response of law enforcement this week, it is easy to imagine that at least some of the seventeen might have been saved if their compatriots were not afraid to go to authorities for help the moment they realized that something was terribly, terribly wrong.

The fact that they were addicted would have been bad enough, and the profit margins insured by prohibition undoubtedly led to the "marketing" of the drug on the streets and in the schools of their community. But there was absolutely no reason for seventeen kids to die. So while it is perhaps debatable as to whether, or to what degree the Drug War encouraged their addiction, there can be no doubt that our drug policy has insured that they did not live long enough to recover from it.

So now, in the prosperous town of Plano, Texas, seventeen kids are dead of overdose in four years, and fourteen more are facing the destruction of their futures by incarceration. And listening in the media to the police and the DEA and even to many of the residents of that town, they would've gladly indicted a hundred more if they could've made cases against them. This is our response. It is a response borne of fear and of anger and of a sense that the world is somehow spinning out of control. But it lacks insight, and compassion, and reason. And it hasn't worked in a thousand other towns. And it won't work once again.

Before hanging up, the activist who called from London had this plea for me, and for the organization for which I work: "Help the addicts themselves to organize and to be heard. They understand, and they can make others understand, that they are not monsters but are vulnerable people, many of whom have known nothing but pain for the entirety of their lives. Help them to convince people that with a little help, addicted persons are capable of helping themselves. I think that their vulnerability can be very powerful in helping them to communicate this. And I think that this will change people's attitudes and reduce their level of fear and hatred. Because, even after all that I've seen, I truly believe that people, at their core, are primarily good."

And I hung up. But I doubted, somehow, that this hopeful philosophy was anywhere to be found in the message that the Drug War sent to the surviving kids of Plano, Texas.

Adam J. Smith
Associate Director

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Issue #51, 7/24/98 New York Mayor Giuliani Threatens to End Methadone Maintenance | Marijuana Reform Party Organizes in New York State | Orange County Medical Marijuana Distributor Sentenced to Four Years in Prison | Oakland City Council Votes Again To Support Medical Cannabis | Oppose Harsh New Mandatory Minimums -- Urge Congress to Vote Against H.R. 3898 -- an action alert from the Drug Policy Foundation | Strip Searches at O'Hare Get US Senator's Attention | Drug War Briefs | Quote of the Week Milton Friedman on Drugs | An Interview with Dr Robert Newman: methadone maintenance, and the self-inflicted wounds of the methadone establishment | Editorial: Prohibition, Punishment and Plano, Texas
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