WHISNANT: The needle and the damage done
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s tragic death demonstrates that the War on Drugs is far from over
“Unless we are willing to accept such a radical shift in our drug policy, cartels are almost certainly here to stay.”
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death arrives at a peculiar time in America’s national conversation about drugs. Almost a half-century after the beginning of its embrace by the 1960s counterculture, marijuana is on its way to becoming more mainstream than cigarettes. Legalization campaigns are ascendant; New York Times columnists are admitting to smoking pot and the President of the United States has gone on record saying that marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol. If not during this decade, it seems like a safe bet that marijuana will be mostly legal everywhere by the time our children go to college. The War on Drugs, we’re told, is finally winding down, and our drug policy is finally becoming less discriminatory and less punitive.
It is during this heralding of a new libertarian moment that we are rudely interrupted by a heroin overdose. Though the death of such a great talent and family man can never be anything less than tragic, it seems appropriate that Hoffman’s death comes at a time when society must seriously consider the next phase of the War on Drugs. While marijuana legalization will certainly relieve a great burden from poor communities in America and abroad, anyone who thinks that its legalization marks the end of the War on Drugs rather than the beginning of some far more difficult questions is sadly mistaken.
Whether marijuana is legalized or not, cocaine will remain an $88 billion business in the U.S. alone, boasting larger revenues than massive corporations like Microsoft and PepsiCo. The UN also estimates the U.S. heroin market to be $55 billion, generating more revenue than Google and Coca-Cola. While it is certainly true that marijuana legalization would be damaging to drug cartels in Mexico, marijuana only accounts for 9 to 17 percent of average cartel revenues and is among the least profitable drugs the cartels distribute. In response to growing competition from U.S. producers, Mexican cartels have begun leasing public land for pot production, improving their product and streamlining their delivery systems. Since cartels have already proven to be savvy businesses in how they have responded to decriminalization campaigns, there’s no reason to think that even completely removing marijuana from their business model would make them disappear.
Faced with this reality, society is left only with painful choices. Do we continue a War on Drugs that has had devastating social costs or do we legalize drugs that have had devastating social costs? Do we allow the cartels to keep shredding the social fabric of Latin America or do we turn over heroin distribution to multinational corporations with marketing and promotional muscle? Though it’s true that the prohibition of heroin and cocaine has not prevented people from using them, studies have shown that the price decreases that would come with legalization would almost certainly lead to more users. To truly cut down illegal sales of hard drugs, some economists and drug policy experts have proposed that the government directly distribute heroin in clinics to put street pushers out of business with low prices. Though this approach may serve its intended purpose, most Americans would justifiably find serious ethical and moral issues with their tax dollars going to fund the production and distribution of hard drugs. Unless we are willing to accept such a radical shift in our drug policy, cartels are almost certainly here to stay.
Though far from infallible, Portugal offers a way forward. In 2001, Portugal changed the use of all drugs from a criminal penalty to an administrative one. Under the new law, drug addiction is treated as an illness rather than something that warrants incarceration. Drug traffickers still face prosecution for distribution, but hard drug users, often socially marginalized anyway, face treatment rather than the prison system. Because prices were not significantly affected with distribution laws still in effect, use remained relatively constant with some slight upticks consistent with trends in Spain and Italy. Portugal didn’t come up with a way to end the violence in the global South associated with drug production or a way to rid its society of the devastation of drug addiction, but it forged a sane path forward that has successfully reframed drug abuse as the medical problem that it is.
As the 70 bags of heroin in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s apartment prove, the criminalization of hard drugs is doing nothing to prevent those who want them from getting them. While we should definitely acknowledge the failings of our drug policy, we should realize that the legalization of marijuana is no cure all, and any progress we cheer must be tempered with clear-eyed acknowledgement of the limits of pot policy. As with so many buzzes, there is a hangover right around the corner.
For additional coverage of marijuana legalization, see our focus feature on how the issue affects the state and University.