The Silver Bullet Solution: Is It Time to End the War on Drugs? by James E. Gierach (2023, Histria Books, 341 pp., $29.99 HB)Jim Gierach is a former Cook County, Illinois, prosecutor, occasional failed political candidate, and longtime fighter in the trenches taking on the war on drugs. With The Silver Bullet Solution, Gierach presents his vision of a sensible drug policy, and he makes no bones about it: To end the numerous harms of the war on drugs, we need to legalize drugs -- that is, to move to legalized, controlled, and regulated drug markets.
That is his silver bullet solution. For Gierach, that drug prohibition produces harm across a broad spectrum of domains, from gun violence to making criminals obscenely wealthy, from drug overdoses to the corruption of law enforcement (the Drug War Chronicle's "This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories" even gets a shoutout) and other government officials, is achingly evident. He, of course, is not alone in that assessment, but it is still, even after years of drug reform activism, a minority position.
I try to win people over with the argument that we should treat currently prohibited drugs the way we treat alcohol: Keep the cops out of it except to clean up the mess. We don't arrest people for drinking, possessing, or selling alcohol absent harm to themselves or others. We do arrest them for drunk driving, for getting drunk and causing public disorder, or for getting drunk and causing domestic violence, for example. The legal alcohol industry is heavily regulated, taxed, and non-violent -- disputes are handled in court, not with gunbattles on the streets.
That position acknowledges that there can be harms related to drug use and that there is a role for law enforcement in keeping society safe, but also acknowledges that a legal, regulated market in currently prohibited substances will make society -- drug users and non-drug users alike -- safer and criminals poorer.
Gierach makes similar arguments throughout The Silver Bullet Solution. A denizen of the Chicago area, he focuses much attention on the Windy City and the prohibition-related violence it has suffered for decades now. In fact, Gierach was railing against prohibition there back in the 1990s. How many people have been killed since then as the city, state, and federal governments try anything and everything to end the violence except the one thing that would actually end the violence -- ending drug prohibition? Gierach asks. (Okay, it wouldn't end all the violence, especially in the gun-saturated society, but it would dramatically reduce killings related to drug prohibition.)
Gierach is hardcore. He is adamant about ending drug prohibition, even though he calls his decades-long crusade "a lonely, contentious, and disappointing road." Not fond of half-measures, which he accuses too many drug reformers of settling for, "If there must be endless drug war, harm reduction is a good fallback position to address drug use harms," he writes. "But harm elimination is better than harm reduction, and an absence of drug war is the best policy to reduce most drug-war harms." [Emphasis in the original.]
He has a similar take on drug decriminalization, which frees drug users from fear of arrest and prosecution but does nothing to address the harms related to black market drug sales, both in terms of street violence and in terms of enriching violent international criminal enterprises. (But give Gierach extra points for recognizing that drug prohibition doesn't only enrich the likes of El Chapo, but also provides an income for hundreds of thousands of poor families in this country. It is hard to support a policy change when it is going to cost you your livelihood.
Gierach doesn't just walk the mean streets of Chicago; he also treads the halls of power at the UN anti-drug bureaucracies in Vienna, and he doesn't like what he sees there. He identifies the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and its two complementary conventions that followed it as the legal backbone of global drug prohibition and demands that they be either repealed or radically amended. In fact, he drafted his own amendment to that effect, one that recognizes recreational drug use, only to find no country willing to pick it up and little support among the drug reform NGOs who cover that beat.
But Gierach is unbroken. Being an anti-prohibitionist absolutist can indeed place on one a "lonely, contentious, and disappointing road," but if the cause is just, you just keep going. And Gierach just keeps going. Let's hope it doesn't take too long for the rest of us to catch up.