Last week, I wrote about my good fortune of being invited by the Sheriff’s Foundation to tour the SCV Sheriff’s station. For me, a highlight of the evening was receiving a presentation by the J-Team, a group of officers primarily fighting juvenile drug addiction. These officers showed their deep concern for all the addicted individuals who they were trying to help get sober by sharing commentaries about their efforts. While I commend the deputies involved in this endeavor for their ability to continue the battle they face in addressing this seemingly insurmountable problem, I was extremely saddened to hear that major drug addiction problems were now being felt at the grammar school level. I shook my head, thinking, here we are, 33 years after Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, establishing mandatory prison sentences for some drug offenses, and I realized even though we are long into the “War On Drugs,” the problem just continues to worsen.
I’m sure you have heard the time weary quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” but it seems to be a very insightful statement. Unfortunately, our elected officials appear to only have one answer for every problem. If they decide there is something that they do not want the public to do, they pass a new law saying don’t do it, or there will be a punishment applied. Then, when the old law doesn’t seem to be accomplishing what they intended, they pass another law making the punishment more severe, and as the elected officials brag about what they have done, the problem just lingers on.
But with drugs, it was not always seen as the problem it is today. There was a period in the 1800s when bottles of Laudanum (an opium derivative), was available for anyone to purchase at the General Store. You might remember watching “The Shootist” starring John Wayne. In this story, the hero was dying of cancer, and when his doctor prescribed Laudanum, he asked: “How will I know when to take it and how much to take?” I chuckled when his doctor told him innocently, “You’ll know!” At that point in history, marketing drugs to the public was everywhere, and during the 1890s even the Sears Catalog offered a syringe and a measured amount of Cocaine for $1.50. But, then again, there was a dark side. If you watched the movie “Tombstone,” you probably remember Wyatt Earp’s first wife using Laudanum to combat her migraine headaches, and her subsequently dying of an overdose.
What changed around the start of the 20th century was the public’s concern about a large segment of the population becoming addicted and thereby losing their ability to be productive members of society. So, the lawmakers of the time took up the gauntlet using the only tools at their disposal, and started creating laws prohibiting drug sales and recreational use. But here is the big rub. Laws are only effective when the general public accepts them, and the best example of a law being resisted by the public was the 18th amendment to our constitution, a nationwide ban on the production, importation, transportation, sale, and consumption of alcoholic beverages, known at the time as “Prohibition.”
Brought to you on the silver screen have been many western movies, which all seemed to include saloon-inspired alcoholism, violence, and corruption. Even my favorite old TV western, “Gunsmoke,” seemed to center on the “Long Branch Saloon” with Doc, Festus, Matt and Kitty regularly meeting for a drink. So, to combat the perceived problem, the Anti-Saloon League, social progressives, and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union created a massive campaign to end the evils of alcohol” culminating in 1920 with the passage of the 18th U.S. Constitutional Amendment, thereby outlawing the production and consumption of alcoholic beverages in the United States.
From one perspective the “Prohibition” law was fairly successful. Alcohol consumption during Prohibition was estimated to have been reduced by 50 percent, but the unintended consequences proved the cure to be worse than the cold. Making something illegal which the general population did not want to give up created a large black market for alcoholic beverages, a boom to the moonshine market, with some making their own bathtub mixtures, while other products were being smuggled into the country. It was a time which saw the rise of the mafia, speakeasies (illegal bars) and crime rising to a level never before witnessed. Because of all the negative aspects, as a social experiment, Prohibition lost supporters every year. Finally, the country had had enough, and in 1933 the 21st U.S. Constitutional Amendment was passed repealing the 18th and Prohibition was no more.
Today, in some ways, I see a parallel related to illegal drug use and the Prohibition era. The sale and use of illegal drugs have put large amounts of money in the Mexican Drug Cartel’s pockets and has created a network of drug smuggling and sales crisscrossing our entire country. Drug dealers are looking to make customers out of our children, and young adults by giving away free samples, along with Hollywood glamorizing the effects of recreational drug use. There seems to be so much money involved, no amount of new laws prohibiting the manufacture and sale of illegal drugs alone will stem the tide. Plus, it is not just about our youth. Personally, I watched my children’s godparents lose it all. They had a beautiful house in the San Fernando Valley. He owned a trucking company and she was a nurse at Kaiser. After discovering cocaine, they used every penny they could lay their hands on to buy drugs, and ended up living on the street, until the Lord took them home. It was sad to watch, and no matter what my wife and I tried to help them get clean, their addiction won out. Recently I read an article describing the homeless population as exhibiting an 80 percent addiction rate, and even if that number is overblown, it appears the number of addicted homeless individuals is huge. We need to stop pretending the major homeless problem can be fixed by just creating affordable housing, because addicts will spend all they have on drugs, and are not the least bit concerned when there is nothing left to pay rent.
Now, I am not advocating we simply decriminalize recreational drug use, but I am saying we need to implement a solution which takes the drug traffickers profits away, and thereby eliminates the practice of targeting children as new drug customers. In addition, prescription drugs (opioids) need to be used and provided more sparingly. The alternative is to continue what we are doing by passing more laws prohibiting illegal drug manufacturing, transportation, sales and use, spend more money to fund law enforcement, and fill up our jails. All while the problem continues to get worse.
We should seriously consider Don Wilson’s words: “As a people, we are not very good students of history; we keep repeating the same mistakes at dreadful costs.”
As a country, we must change the way we approach the drug problem, or if we continue down the same tired old road, it will end up as Robert Fuller said: “I have seen the future and it doesn’t work.”