This author insists we need to wrest control of drug distribution from the hands of criminals—and the solution, as he sees it, is staring us in the face.
by Robert P. French
In my early days as a writer, I was earning my living doing a contract for a high-tech startup in the downtown east side of Vancouver. This is the poorer end of town. On my way to the office, I would pick my way along the sidewalk, trying to avoid stepping on discarded needles and other drug paraphernalia. Every morning, I walked past the entrance to an alleyway. It was full of addicts who were either sleeping in filthy blankets, shooting up, eating, arguing, laughing, crying, fighting, or just sitting, staring into infinity.
I became obsessed with the thought of what it would feel like to wake up in that alley, and who might be unfortunate enough to do so. Thus was born Cal Rogan: a homeless, drug-addicted ex-cop. As storylines and dialogue started to weave paths through my mind, I quickly discovered one flaw in my thinking. My knowledge of drugs, addiction, and how the drug business operates had all been gleaned from movies, novels, and TV soundbites. At that time, I did not know any addicts. No one I knew had any addicts in their family. Clearly, I needed to do some research.
I had never really thought much about addiction. My hardly examined presuppositions were probably the same as many people’s: drug addicts started off as not-so-bright kids who experiment with drugs—often as a rebellion against their parents—and then get hooked; maybe the police need more money for interdiction; stiffer sentences for convicted dealers should keep them off the streets. Most of all, I believed there was no viable long-term solution to the problem.
I threw myself into the research. I took a government-sponsored course on drug addiction, and had several conversations with experts on the subject. I talked at length with a retired senior police officer I knew. I was introduced to the ex-president of the Vancouver Drug Users Association, a recovering addict, who walked me through the downtown east side and explained how street-level dealers operate, actually pointing out drug deals in progress as we walked. I came to know several addicts, alcoholics, and homeless people, some of whom became friends. I learned their stories and helped them out when I could.
It may seem radical, but legalization solves all of the problems of the current drug crisis without introducing new ones.
What became clear was that everything I thought I knew was wrong. Addicts and alcoholics living on the streets came from all walks of life: from children born in poverty to scions of wealthy families; from high-school dropouts to honor-roll students; from illiterates to PhDs. One man who became a good friend was Roy. He was a former librarian at McMaster University in Ontario and was by far the best-read person I have ever met. He was a wonderful guy with a razor-sharp brain and a keen wit. He was the inspiration for one of the characters in Junkie. Sadly, life on the streets led to his death.
Not only was I wrong about the addicts themselves, I was wrong about everything else, too. And what I discovered then is doubly true today. I started to look into why there is so much addiction, and like many a good detective, I discovered I needed to “follow the money.”
Prior to President Richard Nixon declaring he was going to wage a war on drugs, there were several criminal organizations loosely referred to as “the Mafia.” International in scope, these gangs were quite successful, and many of the leaders were millionaires. Notably, the richest of these, John Gotti, is believed to have had a net worth of thirty million dollars. Today the leaders of the major drug gangs are not just millionaires, they are billionaires. They recognized something that the politicians missed or ignored.
The fact of the matter is that we all love our mood-altering substances. I love my coffee every morning and my craft beer on the weekends. My mother, who lived to be ninety-six, loved her cigarettes. People enjoy pot, cocaine, heroin, and various psychedelics. Coffee, alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, cocaine, and heroin can all be, to a greater or lesser extent, addictive. One addict I knew told me it was harder for him to quit smoking tobacco than it was to quit heroin. And we are all, to some extent, addicted to sugar.
As a society, we have chosen to make coffee, sugar, alcohol, and tobacco legal, yet by some bizarre double standard, we have chosen to make pot (in most places), cocaine, heroin, and other drugs illegal. Yet, despite the current opioid problem, more people die from alcohol and tobacco than from illegal drugs.
This double standard is where the criminals seized their opportunity. The manufacture, distribution, and sale of illegal drugs have been the engine to turn millionaire criminals into billionaires, laughing all the way to the bank as governments have spent trillions trying to stop them.
We have chosen to make coffee, tobacco, and alcohol legal, yet by some bizarre double standard, we have chosen to make cocaine, heroin, and other drugs illegal.
Some countries have chosen to decriminalize drugs. Portugal decriminalized the public and private use, acquisition, and possession of all drugs in 2000. It is still illegal to trade drugs in amounts greater than for personal use. This move has made for some significant improvements in public health outcomes, but has not dealt with the underlying problem, namely that criminals still control the marketing, distribution, and pricing of drugs. Decriminalization is a partial solution at best.
We need to take drugs out of the hands of criminals, and there is one easy way to do that.
We should legalize and control the manufacture and distribution of drugs, and treat them exactly the same way as alcohol and tobacco:
- Allow existing corporations (Philip Morris, Heineken, Seagrams, etc.), who are experienced in selling alcohol and tobacco, to now trade in drugs;
- Apply controls to the manufacture, dosages, and packaging of the drugs, including health warnings on the packages, together with contact information for people who want help with their addiction;
- Apply controls to avoid price gouging. For example, in the U.S., a tobacco addict can buy a pack of twenty cigarettes for an average of $7. Price heroin the same. It will ensure that addicts don’t need to steal in order to feed their habits. At dramatically lower-than-current pricing, companies can still make a very healthy profit, but the criminals can’t;
- Sell drugs through current retail channels, applying exactly the same controls that are applied to tobacco and alcohol;
- Tax the sale of drugs.
As a side benefit, legalization drastically reduces the trillion-dollar cost of drug interdiction from the shoulders of government, and turns it into a revenue stream.
This may seem radical to many of you, but legalization and control solve all of the problems of the current drug crisis without introducing new ones.
When presenting this idea to people, the most common objection I get is, “I don’t want it to be easier for my kids to buy drugs.” A poll of high-school students showed that the vast majority said it is easier for them to buy illegal drugs now than it is to buy a six-pack of beer. This is because the drug gangs make so much profit that they can pay school kids to sell drugs, in school, to their peers.
Finally, a political note: the illegal drug trade is a $350 billion industry. One day’s revenue would be enough to pay $250,000 to every U.S. congressperson and senator, every U.K. MP, every elected member of the federal governments of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. Next time you hear a politician spouting off about the “war on drugs,” ask yourself why.
Robert P. French is a software developer, turned actor, turned author. He is the writer of the seven (so far) Cal Rogan Mysteries crime thrillers about a drug-addicted ex-cop who fights his way from living rough on the streets to being a much-sought-after PI. The series, set in Vancouver, Canada, reflects the best and worst of the city. Robert is passionate about having the right words on the page, and with every new book, his goal is to make it better than the previous one. His loves are his family, science, language, certain elements of philosophy, and craft beer.
Find out more and get in touch with Robert at his website.
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