John Chase provokes thought at Rotary Club

John Chase gave this talk to the Rotary Club at Spring Hill, Florida, January 29, 2002

Good morning. Some of you may have heard the joke JFK told about the farmer who'd just planted his crop, how he told his neighbor, "I hope I break even this year because I really need the money." This is where we are with the drug war.

Before I get into my subject, let me tell you a little about me. I am like most of you: I've always believed that every citizen owes a debt to the society that brung 'em up. Back in the late 50s I served 3 years in the Navy - the peacetime Navy - and I have been paying taxes for almost 50 years. Never in trouble with the law. Always vote. Although registered as a Republican, according to my wife I am a civil libertarian.

My first recollection of discomfort with the drug war was in the middle 90s when my brother told me that Milton Friedman was calling it prohibition. Well, we all know about alcohol Prohibition. It caused more social damage than it prevented, and we gave up on it after 13 years. I came off the sidelines four years ago. Started from zero. Had to ask my grown son what it meant to take a hit off a joint. Now I am active in two reform organizations.

One of them is The November Coalition, the organization of the families of drug prisoners. I thought that was radical when I started into it, but I don't think it's so radical anymore. If you want to know more about it, there is a pamphlet on the table at the back of the room you can pick up.We have been trying real hard to defeat drugs since 1971. It is worldwide drug prohibition and it's not working. If it were, I wouldn't be talking to you today.

One country is making headway against drugs - by not enforcing prohibition. Switzerland marches to the beat of a different drummer. U.S. policymakers call Swiss policy a disaster. But Swiss policymakers have results. Ours have beliefs. Three of our key beliefs are:

Belief #1: Drug-crazed addicts commit crimes.
Belief #2: Soft drugs lead users to harder drugs.
Belief #3: More blacks are in prison for drugs because more blacks do drugs.

Let me take these three one at a time.

1: Drug-crazed addicts commit crimes.

We hear it frequently. We also hear that drug use has climbed 75% since 1992. Republicans hammered the Democrats with this statistic in the 2000 election. We also hear that violent crime is down sharply - down almost half since 1992, based on victimization surveys, not police reports. Does this strike you as odd? I thought drug use and violent crime went together.

Remember "Needle Park" in Zurich in the late 1980s, early 1990s. It was a term of derision we used for the area Zurich provided for drug addicts to inject in public.
Needle Park was the proof for us Americans that relaxing drug laws doesn't work. We'd have put undercover agents in that park and cleaned it up.

The Swiss went the opposite direction. They tried an experiment. They provided not just a place to inject, but also sterile needles, even free heroin! It wasn't quite as crazy as it sounds. Each addict had to register with the city to get into the program. He/she had to be above a certain age, and must have tried and failed to get clean more than once. The program also required that the addict attends a number of counseling sessions and offered free treatment upon request.

The Swiss have voted for it twice in referendums, and it is now set to run through at least 2004. It's no longer an experiment. It's now called therapeutic heroin and has spread to over half of the Swiss states. I have a book here by two Swiss MDs. "Cost-Benefit Analysis of Heroin Maintenance Treatment." It's an analysis of about 300 addicts during the first year of the experiment in1995. Bottom line is that society saves money - about $30 US Dollars each day for each addict in the program.

Almost all that saving was in what they called "legal behavior." That is, they no longer had to steal to get cash to buy drugs on the illegal market. You are probably not aware that the street price of heroin is about $20,000 per ounce.

2: Soft drug use leads to harder drugs.

The Swiss think it is illegal soft drugs that lead to harder drugs, because a person selling illegal soft drugs also has connections to heroin. So they "separate the markets" the only way they can - they legalize soft drugs. Marijuana is legal, de facto, in the German speaking areas. The Swiss Parliament is now drafting legislation that would make it official throughout Switzerland. Then there will be a referendum, probably within 2 years, to let the people decide, the same way they decided for therapeutic heroin.

If you think that sounds radical, consider MDMA or Ecstasy, the so-called "Hug Drug." Swiss courts are treating it like marijuana, so those users - mostly young people - are not exposed to criminals. Floridians would think the Swiss courts have lost their collective mind. We "know" that Ecstasy kills! Or does it?

Maybe it's only ILLEGAL Ecstasy that kills? The official annual reports of European Union drug use indicate one death in 6.8 million doses of Ecstasy! That death rate is not as safe as marijuana, but I think it's almost as safe as alcohol. How come Ecstasy is dangerous in the U.S. but not in the EU? The Swiss believe that repressing a popular drug causes more social damage than it prevents. We learned that lesson during alcohol prohibition in the 1920s.

3: More black drug offenders are in prison because more blacks do drugs.

This is the key to the modern drug war, declared by Richard Nixon in 1971. One of Nixon's aides, John Ehrlichman, was interviewed in 1996 by the author of the book "Smoke and Mirrors." During that interview, Ehrlichman said, "Look, we understood we couldn't make it illegal to be young or poor or black in the United States, but we could criminalize their common pleasure. We understood that drugs were not the health problem we were making them out to be, but it was such a perfect issue for the Nixon White House that we couldn't resist it."

Now Florida sends 460 black male drug offenders to prison per million black males in the population, but only 23 whites per million. That's 21 times as many blacks as whites, relative to population. The average for all states is 13 times as many. This suggests that a lot more blacks than whites use drugs. Let's look at that.

According to the official U.S. government survey for the year 2000 - released in September - 6.4% of blacks, age 12+, used an illegal drug in the past 30 days. For whites, the figure is exactly the same, 6.4% , and if we look at just the age 12-17 group, the white figure is actually higher. So if you cast your net in the white community and pull in 100 people, 6 or 7 of them will be drug users. Same in the Black community: 6 or 7 users. But if you cast your net ONLY in the Black community . . .THAT is racial profiling.

You may be thinking, "Ah, but more dealers are black! We all know that, don't we? We see it on the evening news." I don't know that's true, but it would be no surprise. Men on the bottom rung of the social ladder tend to enter these unsavory businesses. Certainly true in the 1920s when Irish and Italian immigrants got into bootlegging. It took no expensive training and it paid real well. One reason New York City Mayor LaGuardia wanted Prohibition to end was that it was tarnishing the image of Italian-Americans. That seems laughable today, but Afro-Americans aren't laughing.

It is hypocritical - almost immoral - to blame others for our drug use, but U.S. anti-drug policy depends on it. Now, a little hypocrisy would be okay with me if it got the job done. But this is useless. How many blacks do you think we'll need to lock up to get white boys to stop snorting cocaine?

At my job as an engineer we used to say that a problem well defined is 90% solved. Nixon defined the problem as drug use. But that was just a pretext to repress young people, blacks, browns and poor white people. We need to back off and try to redefine what it is we are fighting. I'd define it as the dual problem of greed and addiction. If we could get rid of those two, most of the social damage would end. The federal government has never tried this.

The only effective way to defeat greed is to destroy the illegal market, and the only way to do that is to legalize everything. Now, I'm not talking about a free market. I'm talking about state liquor stores. First the illegal drugs, then tobacco, then alcohol. Let Congress define a new type of drug for the FDA to regulate for purity and labeling. Call them recreational drugs. No advertising allowed - not for drugs, not for alcohol, not for tobacco - and a state employee selling to a minor will lose his/her license. Price these drugs for maximum revenue to the state, but not high enough to sustain an illegal market. Use a small part of that revenue to offer treatment, treatment upon request, open-ended. It's okay to fall off the wagon, and if you prefer living like a wino in the gutter, that's your choice.

If you rob or steal, you'll be prosecuted. If you hurt someone, you'll be prosecuted. If you drive under the influence you'll be prosecuted, and if you resell these drugs, you'll be prosecuted. There won't be much reselling because there won't be much profit. When was the last time you saw someone selling liquor on the street? The transition won't be easy. But at least we'd have a chance for success. Thirty years of failure is enough for me.

You don't like my idea? You want to get serious about drugs? OK. The Bush administration wants to reduce the demand for drugs; so let's do that - REALLY. Put undercover agents in the offices of corporate America, in our colleges, universities, shopping malls, public gatherings. Run 'stings' to arrest EVERY user. Then, if the arrestee agrees to snitch on someone else, he can go to treatment; otherwise he goes to prison. Then arrest the person he snitched on and offer him/her the same deal and so on and so on. Do those things for a few years, and you'll begin to like the idea of state liquor stores.

Some people don't see that the drug war is just a rerun of the alcohol prohibition of the 1920s. Let me read you part of the resolution passed by WONPR (Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform) in 1930:

"We are convinced that National Prohibition, wrong in principle, has been equally disastrous in consequences in the hypocrisy, the corruption, the tragic loss of life and the appalling increase in crime which have attended the abortive attempt to enforce it; in the shocking effect it has had upon the youth of the nation; in the impairment of constitutional guarantees of individual rights; in the weakening of the sense of solidarity between the citizen and the government, which is the only sure basis of a country's strength."

Thanks for listening. Any questions? Any stones to throw?

The Razor Wire is a publication of The November Coalition, a nonprofit organization that advocates drug law reform. Contact information:
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