What UUs do?

By John Chase, TNC regional leader in Florida

Each summer the Unitarian Universalists (UUs) select a Social Action Issue for study during the coming 24-month period. This is a feature of their annual UU Assembly. Last summer 2000 they selected "An Alternative to the War on Drugs" from the five choices presented to the delegates. This coming summer they will conduct a workshop on the subject, and during the summer of 2001 they will issue a 'statement of conscience' on that subject, assuming they can arrive at a consensus statement on the drug war.

Several of us UU drug reform activists have been speaking at UU congregations during the past nine months. My territory has been Florida, where I volunteered to speak and have been invited to several venues. It has been an educational process for both me and for my listeners. I am new to the drug reform movement and even newer to Unitarian Universalism. I have learned that UUs value and accept ALL human beings, that there is an unknowable higher being but that no particular religion - even UUs - know who that higher being is. Above all, UUs are political and social activists; so it is no surprise that they selected "An Alternative to the War on Drugs" as their issue for study. That is what I have learned from them. What have they learned from me? Well, let me tell you some of what I tell them.


Our lawmakers got us into this jam by moving too fast, and we must not repeat that mistake. If your experience is like mine, the longer you study this problem, the stronger will be your position. Some of you will discount what I am about to tell you, and so I think I am prepared for your questions.

Before we look for an alternative, it is necessary to understand what we have now, what we have achieved and what it has cost. It has failed to achieve the only thing it was promised to do - and that is to reduce the prevalence of illegal drugs among kids, and the federal government is trying to hide that failure. One cannot accept government press releases "as is". Simply put, they are dishonest.

The Federal anti-drug budget now approaches $20 billion. Add in the State anti-drug budgets and prison costs, and we are at well over $50 billion per year - to fight drugs.

The social costs are far more than that - record-breaking incarceration rates, children without parents, random gun violence, growing distrust of anyone, a corrupted US Constitution. Drug prohibitionists insist that much of the damage is caused not by the drug war, but by criminals dealing in illegal drugs. Such nonsense reminds me how the Anti-Saloon League blamed bootleggers for the death, blinding and paralysis caused by adulterated alcohol in the 1920s.

Prohibitionists tell us the drug war is needed to avoid something worse. They say we are fighting the most dangerous drugs, but that's not true. We are fighting drugs the US Justice Department SAYS are the most dangerous. They say we are fighting abuse and addiction, but that's not true either. We are fighting drug use, and there is a HUGE difference between drug use, drug abuse, and drug addiction. They say that if we legalize drugs, drug use will rise. But would abuse and addiction also rise? That question has no meaning to prohibitionists because they define use as abuse, and abuse as addiction.

So how might we find an alternative to achieve more at less cost? Most of us - as much as three-quarters from recent Pew Research Poll - know the drug war has failed, but we do nothing because we are afraid of making another mistake. Our fundamental problem is that we cannot begin to figure out how much of the danger of an "illegal drug" is caused by the ILLEGAL component and how much is caused by the DRUG component.

We misread the danger of the drug's illegality as being caused by the drug itself, by its pharmacological properties. Our misunderstanding is like dyslexia, seeing things backwards or upside/down, and thereby blocking logical thinking. Two case histories show how the legal status of a drug affects its danger. The first one, of course, is our experience with alcohol Prohibition in the1920s. The second one is the ongoing evolution of drug control in Switzerland.

First - the 1920s:

The social damage of Prohibition required both the alcohol AND its illegality. Before Prohibition we had only the alcohol component. In 1919 we added the illegal component when voters ratified the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. Our grandparents - my grandparents anyhow - then struggled for 13 years with the same kinds of social damage we are seeing now, but on a much smaller scale.

They finally quit trying. It was relatively easy for them because they remembered America before Prohibition - only 13 years.

US voters accepted the truth and legalized alcohol in 1933. That was 67 years ago, and no politician since then has made a single serious proposal to return its use and production into prohibited criminal conduct.

Second - the Swiss:

Switzerland goes it alone, partly because they are not in the European Union. But it's more than that. While they are sensitive to their international treaty obligations, they feel no obligation to follow other American anti-drug policies. This sets Switzerland apart from almost every other country in the world.

Remember Needle Park - in Zurich? About 10 years ago it became a magnet for hard drug users and dealers. So the Swiss replaced it - in early 1994 - with a national experiment where addicts could register and obtain free heroin. Addicts also received counseling and, if they wanted it, they could get treatment. Methadone was also a choice.

The Swiss insist that was not liberalization; instead it was an experiment, tightly controlled, closely monitored and well reported. And those reports, by the way, are on the Internet. These people are not liberal. They are very conservative. Swiss women first got the vote in 1971, if that gives you an indication. But they are very practical people; they are constructive people.

In 1997, for instance, they voted overwhelmingly not to shut down this experiment. One year later they voted overwhelmingly not to legalize drugs. Sounds moderate to me. Then in June 1999, one year later, they voted to continue this experiment for 5 more years until 2004. Officially it is no longer an experiment; it is now known as "therapeutic heroin" and it has expanded to10 of their 26 states.

Although that referendum passed with only 55% of the vote, it had broad support. I believe it had majorities in the German-speaking and the French-speaking and Italian-speaking areas. And I know it had support among diverse religious groups.

The Swiss treatment of marijuana is also practical. As my Swiss-Italian contact told me by email, "We have decided to permit the therapeutic use of heroin, and we think that cannabis consumption is going to complement alcohol consumption in our society as a recreational drug. But these are ad hoc decisions, not parts of a 'liberalization strategy'." Serious trafficking in marijuana can bring a long prison sentence in Switzerland. If this sounds like a contradiction, just remember that the Swiss take their international obligations seriously.

The Swiss are now wondering what to do about Ecstasy. Swiss courts so far are treating it like a soft drug. Floridians would think the Swiss courts have lost their collective mind. We have been reading in Florida about our rash of "Ecstasy- related" deaths this past year.

Most of those were not Ecstasy deaths; they were caused by an adulterant to the Ecstasy. (PMC. You might have read about it.) In Switzerland Ecstasy is safer because it has not been driven 'underground', handed over for production, distribution, price and profit to criminal gangs.

Serious American reformers propose what they call 'harm reduction'. You may have heard that term. I haven't heard them say so, but their proposals are tantamount to adopting current Swiss practice. For me the Drug War is no more the answer to drug abuse than National Prohibition was the answer to the saloon culture. There's not a doubt in my mind that we'd be better off now if we had never driven these drugs underground.

I can't end this talk without emphasizing the importance of race. We take comfort in the belief that our drug felons are in prison because they sold drugs, not because they are black or Hispanic. But their customers are mostly white! It is comforting to believe that if any blame is to be placed for using drugs, it can be placed on somebody else, on THEM, those different from us, you know, us white, middle-class, and hardworking people. There is something immoral about this abdication of personal responsibility. And it is not just immoral; it's useless. How many black guys do YOU think we've got to imprison to get the white guys to stop using cocaine? Then we compound this uselessness by blaming Colombia, the nation of dealers. Ah, but it's not Colombia the country. Our leaders blame the Colombian Narco-Terrorists, comforting perhaps, but misleading and prejudicial.

The Swiss experience won't help on this, but our prohibition experience will. Remember how Prohibition began. The Women's Christian Temperance Movement formed in 1874. Then at the turn of the century the US accepted a flood of immigrants from Europe. People of different language, different religion, different drinking habits ... different culture.

There was a real concern then that we might not be able to absorb those people. Then came World War I and our anti-German hysteria. As fate would have it, German-Americans owned the breweries, and the breweries owned the saloons. The Anti-Saloon League, formed in 1895, built its strength on anti-immigrant hysteria, especially anti-German hysteria. We owe the passage of the 18th Amendment to the Anti-Saloon League.

It's no surprise that our earliest bootleggers were Germans. Then came the Irish, then the Italians. Who did we arrest? Not the drinkers. We arrested the bootleggers! Does this sound familiar? Men in the lower socioeconomic class gravitate toward these unsavory businesses. It's something they can do, and it pays very well. By their conscious decision to break the law of the majority, these bootleggers - these drug dealers - further isolate themselves from the mainstream. Near the end of Prohibition one of Mayor LaGuardia's reasons for ending Prohibition was that it tarnished the image of Italians. That seems almost laughable today.

What we have today - as in the 1920s - is not a drug war. It is a culture war, and it's made violent and vicious by the prohibition of drugs the majority doesn't like. We could have done almost the same thing by driving COFFEE underground. This thing is spinning out of control as it builds a huge constituency of economic interests. It has become a drug-war industrial complex.

Ending the drug war will be difficult, probably more so than my grandparents faced when they realized that they'd have to persuade 36 of the 48 State legislatures to admit defeat in their quest for an alcohol-free America. The key to understanding it - how to cure this dyslexic-like condition -- is to logically separate the illegal component of the drug from the pharmacological component of the drug.