The opioid overdose crisis has become a catastrophe. Every seven minutes, someone in the United States dies from a preventable drug overdose. Every twenty seconds, someone else is arrested for a drug-law violation. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recorded 81,000 overdose deaths between June of 2019 and June of 2020, an all-time annual high. COVID-19 is killing us in more ways than we realize.
Colorado isn’t doing much better than the rest of the nation. The entire state normally sees around a thousand drug users die from overdoses every year, but throughout 2020 we averaged more than 110 overdose deaths every month. We can’t keep blaming the dealers, the pharmacies or the users. This overdose crisis falls squarely on the shoulders of those who made sure it would persist: the uninformed, or just plain cold-hearted, politicians who continue to ramp up violence against a group of people who are dying en masse. And it is their constituents who let them get away with it, people like you and me.
Okay, I get it. We already legalized weed in Colorado, and we even decriminalized magic mushrooms in Denver and small quantities of most other drugs. It certainly feels like we have made huge strides in a short amount of time. But it is not enough. Not yet. Right now our laws and policies are still part of the problem. Every day another 220 Americans die from preventable overdoses because of our approach to drug control. The War on Drugs is not working. It never has and it never will.
But there is a better way. It is called harm reduction. We have been fighting the War on Drugs for more than a century with no end in sight, yet powerful and potentially dangerous opioids like fentanyl have never been easier to come by on the streets. A harm-reductionist approach proposes we stop wasting our energy waging a worthless war and instead try to keep people safe. Harm reduction means making sure nobody uses dirty needles or dangerous drugs. It means making sure nobody overdoses without somebody nearby to offer medical assistance. And above all else, it means making sure that if and when a drug user is ready to get off drugs, they are still alive to make that decision. The first move toward this common-sense and evidence-based approach involves opening safe places where people can use their drugs without fear of arrest.
The City of Denver has repeatedly gained momentum toward allowing legal safe-injection sites, and we have even passed legislation at times. But these efforts always get stalled by politicians who repeat the same lines we have been listening to for a hundred years. As drug users continue to drop dead across the country from using unregulated, unlabeled and untaxed products, we are reminded, falsely, how expensive it would be to help them, and, against all available evidence, the danger such sites would pose to children and non-users who might be tempted to start using heroin just because they exist. These fear-filled stories are not based in fact, but in Hollywood fiction. They are the distilled tonic of our culture of public-service announcements, the final product of an intergenerational scheme to indoctrinate the public.
Allow me to debunk a few myths about drugs and those who use them.
Myth 1: Our Cultural Beliefs About Drugs Are Based on Facts
Once your livelihood is tied up in a debate, you are bound to find yourself drawn to the side of the argument that allows you to keep your job. A growing number of law-abiding citizens stand to lose their careers if we make meaningful strides in drug-policy reform. These folks can hardly remain objective when considering new evidence or arguments for ending the War on Drugs. That was the real genius of the war’s original design. It ensured a permanently expanding conflict that endlessly acquires new supporters by lining their pockets and offering them a title enchanted with the cultural currency of respect: police officer, detective, SWAT member or judge. Without drug arrests to fill their schedules, many law enforcement officers will be laid off or let go. There is not enough crime to justify their positions.
The War on Drugs is designed to employ people who then become devotees to the cause. It isn’t just correctional employees. It is drug-test manufacturers, law enforcement training programs, private prison investors, deputies at the local jail, suppliers of law enforcement equipment, court reporters, transport workers and even food-service employees whose jobs depend on contracts with jails and prisons. The prison-industrial complex is a massive system supporting millions of U.S. citizens through salaries that depend upon permanent mass incarceration. Our cultural beliefs about the dangers of drugs are tainted by the noise from those around us whose livelihoods are at stake if the war ever abates.
Myth 2: Drug Users Deserve Treatment, but Drug Dealers Deserve Punishment
The War on Drugs is built upon false dichotomies: the difference between good drugs and bad drugs, between prescription drugs and street drugs and, most damaging, the alleged difference between drug users and drug dealers. All drug users are drug dealers. Our cultural infatuation with separating good guys from bad guys has poisoned the conversation about criminal corrections. When the cops and the courts get ahold of a suspect, they classify them as dealer or user — based, for the most part, on the quantity of drugs in their possession at the time of arrest. But illegal drugs are expensive, and in capitalism, that means we can get a discount if we buy our drugs in bulk. So we pool our funds, and we send a representative to the dope house to buy it all at once. An ounce of heroin might cost $3,000 if purchased in small batches, or less than $1,000 if bought in one transaction. If the pick-up person is arrested on the way home, she will probably be charged as a dealer no matter how much she insists she is not. And once she gets to court, her sentence will largely depend on her original charge. Her friend caught with a small bag of dope a few hours later might get drug court and rehab, while she winds up in prison for two to five years.
I spent years addicted to daily doses of intravenous heroin, and it didn’t take long to figure out I needed two things: friends who also used dope, and the ability to buy in bulk to get a discount. All drug users are drug dealers in a culture of prohibition.
Myth 3: Drug Markets Cause Violence and Crime
Since Hollywood began capitalizing on the trope of underworld criminals versus superhuman cops, we have absorbed the message that drug markets cause drug-related violence. This is untrue. Drugs do not make people beat up strangers or hatch plots to rob the local liquor store. The scarcity and high price of drugs is what drives the crime that accompanies the market. The underworld is a terrible place. You can’t call the police if someone robs you. But retribution of some sort is required to prevent additional robberies. Violence is mandatory in any illegal market where the product is more valuable than gold.
We could end it all by simply allowing drug dealers to call the police if they are robbed, and drug users to do the same if someone sells them bad dope.
Myth 4: Replacing Dealers With Doctors Won’t Fix Anything
Those in the illegal drug market are incentivized to break all sorts of laws and to behave irresponsibly, whether we are acting as suppliers or just users. Drug dealers make more money when their customers are addicted and unhealthy. The more users use, the more dealers make.
Illegal markets also incentivize dealers to increase their profits by diluting their drugs and effectively raising the price. And since buyers can’t just go to the next store to get the same product, we are forced to pay for dope that is impure and unlabeled. We often don’t even know what we are ingesting. How could we?
So long as the War on Drugs persists, drug dealers will also act as gateways to other illegal drugs that we might not otherwise use. A doctor has never tried to talk me into buying some cocaine or amphetamines when I was there for antidepressants or asthma medication, and they probably never will, because they don’t make their money by selling drugs. Doctors make their living giving advice. They are not incentivized to promote poly-substance addiction or to dilute their drugs or raise the prices based on limited supply.
Myth 5: The War on Drugs Is Necessary
We could end it overnight: the underworld markets, the violence, the polluted products, the untaxed purchases, the petty theft and fraud, and even the overdose deaths. I have lost half a dozen friends since my release from prison just over a decade ago, all victims of the War on Drugs. And their deaths were preventable if we cared enough about drug users to legalize and regulate all drugs, and to refuse to ever send anyone to prison for possessing a chemical meant to make them feel better. But we don’t care — or, rather, we don’t care as much about drug users as we do about police officers. We care more about paying high salaries to cultural heroes whom we have been convinced we cannot do without.
To end the War on Drugs and its horrific body count, we would have to care about addicted people more than cash, and in the United States, we have a real problem when it comes to valuing life over coin. That’s the argument anti-maskers have been making throughout the COVID-19 pandemic: “We have to get back to making and spending money even if it costs us a few lives.” That’s why pizza and cheesy fries outnumber salads and vegan options on our fast-food menus. That’s why the War on Drugs continues to grow every year, along with the death toll from preventable overdoses. We can do better, but not until we decide to value life more than profit.
The conversation about laying off police officers and closing down expensive prisons usually ends before it begins. We are, after all, in the midst of a never-ending war. We have been allowed to blame the casualties of war on illegal chemicals, but we know that they are casualties and prisoners of war, not drugs. Drug users don’t inject poisoned chemicals or contaminated products because we think it will be fun. We don’t use dirty needles or pipes unless we can’t get clean ones. We don’t throw our needles and pipes into public lawns and private yards unless we are concerned about being caught with them and arrested. It is incredibly rare for a drug user to overdose on purpose. We overdose because our dope is unregulated, thanks to the War on Drugs. We purchase the same heroin from the same dealer on the same corner day after day, and every dose is different. What gets me high today requires a double dose tomorrow, and can result in an overdose the next day. The War on Drugs is designed to make sure we keep overdosing and dying, and that our deaths are blamed not on the war nor the warriors, but on the bad drugs, which only exist because of the war.
I understand this conversation will be difficult, and I feel empathy for the warriors and police officers who will no longer have careers imprisoning addicted people once we halt this vicious and unnecessary war. But it is far past time.
Seven minutes may have passed already since you sat down. Yet another drug user has died from a preventable overdose. It is time to stop lying to ourselves. Wars shouldn’t be permanent. A century is long enough.
Benjamin Boyce is an addicted person who spent time in prison for crimes related to his addiction. Since his release in 2005, he earned his Ph.D., and he currently teaches at local universities. He also hosts The Dr. Junkie Show, a podcast devoted to harm reduction and ending the War on Drugs.
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