All Commentary
Monday, January 1, 1973

Drug Legislation Mainline to Disaster

Mr. Patton is a graduate student and part-time lecturer in physics at Hunter College in New York City.

In the long-standing debate over the question of drug legislation in the United States, two major and opposite positions stand out. There are those who call for immediate legalization of marijuana. Some would go so far as to lift the ban on all drugs including heroin and other so-called “hard” narcotics as well. Others decry what they see as a breakdown in moral order and vehemently oppose any letup in the government’s war against the manufacture, sale, and use of illegal drugs. They frequently point to the high incidence of drug-related crime — particularly in major population centers such as New York City — as a major argument for their case against drugs.

There can be no argument against the obvious fact that such crime is on the rise. The problem has reached such proportions that law enforcement officials frequently point with pride to a decrease in the rate of increase of violent crimes against persons and property in a given year. And the connection between drug addiction and crimes against persons and property is well documented. To sustain a $50 per day narcotics habit, the addict needs resources, which may lead him to steal enormous amounts of property ranging to $2500 or more each week!

Few would argue with the assertion that the widespread use of drugs is detrimental in the extreme both to the unfortunates who have become dependent upon them and to others who pay a bitter price in property loss, personal injury, and the debilitating fear that oppresses those who dwell in our once great cities. The very foundations of our social order would appear to be threatened by this pernicious epidemic that rages unchecked through our midst. Most pitiful is the fact that the primary victims of narcotics addiction are the young — those in whose hands our future rests.

Hunting the Villains

Human nature being what it is, it is perhaps not surprising that our first instinct is to seek the villains that are responsible for our affliction. And find them we do. We find them in the persons of popular singers who, allegorically or directly, extol the virtues of drugs in their songs, in the pushers who prowl our streets, campuses, and even playgrounds. And we find them in the specter of organized crime, the syndicate, the international narcotics czars.

The answers seem obvious. Crack down on the street pusher.

Guard the borders. Impose economic sanctions on the countries of origin. Clean up our films, our books, our records. Use the powers of the Federal Communications Commission to deprive the apostles of drugs of the podium from which they transmit their message of doom to our nation’s youth.

But many of these answers have been tried to one degree or another, whereas the problem grows at an accelerated pace. Why? Again the obvious answers. Soft judges. Corrupt police. Lax customs agents. Spineless do-gooders in government. Get tough — declare all-out war on narcotics —and the problem will be solved.

Unfortunately, we are all too slow to learn from our mistakes. We have, after all, trod this path once before, in the twenties, the era of bathtub gin, the speakeasy, and the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. The conclusions that can be drawn from our nation’s experience with alcohol prohibition are painfully obvious. Contrary to the desires of our undoubtedly well-intentioned legislators, the net effect of the Eighteenth Amendment was to increase the use of hard liquor in the nation; the effect of repeal was to decrease it, although never to its pre-Prohibition level.

This argument, of course, has been raised before and the usual reply is that hard narcotics such as heroin are incomparably more dangerous to the individual and to society than alcohol. It is further argued that, in attempting to eliminate the use of alcohol, prohibition was doomed to failure because alcoholic beverages are part of our Western cultural tradition.


These arguments are both true and dangerously misleading. Certainly, heroin is far more dangerous in its effects than alcohol. But if the parallel we have been drawing between Prohibition and present drug legislation is valid then there is all the more reason to believe that the net effect of drug prohibition will be infinitely more pernicious than alcohol prohibition proved to be. Furthermore, while narcotic use is not yet a part of our Western tradition, there is every reason to believe it is fast becoming so and that drug prohibition is largely responsible. Let us not forget that many of the folk heroes of our Revolution, such as John Hancock, were smugglers who openly defied the authority of the British crown. Can anyone deny that within an increasingly large segment of our nation’s youth — men of the same age as those who defied the rule of force at Lexington and Concord — there is much the same regard for those who defy our drug laws as there was for the Hancocks during our beginnings as a free and independent people.

It is ironic that the strongest support for the enforcement approach to the drug problem tends to come from the ranks of political conservatives. For it is from conservative economic theories that the most devastating argument against drug control through legislation can be made: the argument that the only effective control of harmful drugs is that imposed by the untrammeled operation of the free market. In such a market the will of the consumer, as expressed through the mechanism of price, reigns supreme.

They Prey on the Young

The biggest villain in today’s drug picture is the unscrupulous pusher whose prey are the young people on our college campuses, schoolyards, and playgrounds. Those that become his customers may eventually have narcotics habits that cost as much as $500 per week to support. For the vast majority of addicts, to support such a habit by honest labor is impossible. And so the addict enters a twilight world in which long periods of driving need are punctuated by moments of incapacitating euphoria. He lives from fix to fix; nothing else matters. To get that next fix he will lie, cheat, steal or even kill if necessary. No wonder then that some 60 to 80 per cent of all crimes against property are committed by narcotics addicts. Yet, these crimes are committed to supply a habit that, in the absence of restrictive drug legislation would cost no more to maintain than the habit of a heavy cigarette smoker. How many tobacco merchants do we find haunting elementary school playgrounds to entice youngsters into smoking their first cigarette? The very suggestion is ludicrous. Why? Simply because the profits on the sale of cigarettes do not supply sufficient incentive.

Thus the very actions of government that are intended to curb the use and sale of dangerous narcotics act instead to line the coffers of organized crime. Suppose the all-out war against narcotics that many call for were actually initiated. Forgetting the inevitable corruption in the ranks of those who would be called upon to fight this crusade, let us assume that the government succeeds in totally shutting off all of the present sources of narcotics. What would be the immediate consequences of such a program?

The addict, thus deprived of his usual source of supply would be driven to the point of desperation.

Burglaries and robberies of pharmacies and doctor’s offices would likely reach record heights. What small supplies of narcotics remained on the streets would change hands at fantastically inflated prices. Those who could not pay these prices would either steal drugs or do without. But an addict cannot “do without” drugs in the same way that one can do without a new shirt or a pair of shoes. The vast armies of addicts who were left without the psychological crutch that their habit provides would represent an enormous potential market for anyone who could supply their need. The precise way in which that need would be filled cannot be predicted. That it would be filled is a certainty.

Market Principles

The principles that apply here are identical with those that apply to any market situation. Economic law knows no moral code. When the demand for any commodity outruns the supply, the price of that commodity will inevitably rise. At the present time, the “market” price for heroin at the level of the street dealer is more than one hundred times the cost of manufacture. The reason is plain. The manufacture, sale, and distribution of heroin is a high-risk venture. The action of government, and nothing else, is responsible for the high price levels that now prevail. The “all-out war” that we are discussing would further raise these prices in proportion to the intensity of the crackdown. The illegal drug market is subject to the very same principles of economics that apply when the issue is price control or minimum wage legislation.

On September 21, 1970, the Federal government initiated a crackdown on the illegal drug traffic across the Mexican border. Operation Intercept, as it was called, was an unqualified success; the New York Times Encyclopedic Almanac for 1970 calls it “the largest civil search and seizure operation ever conducted in peacetime.” A virtual army of radar-equipped patrol boats and search planes slowed the immense flow of narcotics (chiefly marijuana) into this country from Mexico to a dribble. The result? One month later, on October 22, a joint legislative committee of Congress heard testimony that heroin use among New York City youngsters had jumped alarmingly. By drying up the supply of marijuana, Operation Intercept had raised street prices to the point that heroin became competitive with it.

The inevitable consequences of the enforcement approach to narcotics has been stated most succinctly by Peter Drucker writing in Saturday Review of May 13, 1972:

Paradoxically, every “victory” in the “war against narcotics” increases the profitability of this trade and soon creates new pushers, more addicts, and bigger profits. When the narcotics agents “smash a drug ring” and confiscate 50 kilograms of heroin, the drug temporarily becomes scarce around Manhattan, in downtown San Francisco, or on Harvard Square. The price goes up — and with it the profit for the drug rings whose sources of supply are still intact. Addicts become more desperate. Crime and violence — and with them, fear — rise more sharply. More people are lured by their own need and by the high profits into becoming peddlers and pushers, producing still more addicts.

But this has been perhaps a bit one-sided. What of the government’s point of view? What do the officials charged with “curbing the drug traffic” have to say? Interviewed by U.S. News & World Report in their September 25, 1972 issue, Nelson G. Gross, Senior Adviser, International Narcotics Matters, Department of State, was asked if progress had been made in stopping the illegal importation of heroin. Responding in the affirmative, Mr. Gross described the tangible results of an eighteen-month government crackdown on the international drug traffic: “The availability of heroin on the streets is less than it was a year ago. The quality is not as good. The wholesale price is higher, and the retail price — which is what addicts pay — is higher.” Later in the same interview, Gross indicates that he is aware of a second major consequence of the crackdown as he points out that “… those engaged in the drug traffic are turning to other sources of supply, and new routes are being developed to keep the flow of heroin coming to the U.S.”

Gross also refers to the growing traffic in low grade, Mexican “brown” heroin. “There has not been an appreciable amount of brown heroin used within our borders,” he observes, “although increasing supplies are beginning to appear as a result of the East Coast shortage of heroin.” [Italics added]

Incredibly, there is no disagreement between Gross and Drucker as to the consequences of strict enforcement of drug prohibition.

Since 1964 various clinical programs have been instituted in which methadone is administered regularly to heroin addicts to enable them to live near normal lives, to hold down regular jobs and so on. According to the August 11, 1972, issue of the prestigious journal, Science, 50,000 heroin addicts presently are enrolled in such clinical methadone “maintenance” programs in the U.S. Discussing new regulations proposed by the Food and Drug Administration, Science reports:

The new guidelines basically recognize methadone as a safe and effective drug, but surround its use with restrictions aimed at curbing a black market that has been spreading at an alarming rate… Doctors through carelessness or ignorance, have dispensed prescriptions for methadone tablets that are promptly sold for up to $10 apiece so that the “patient” can buy more heroin.

Who could be paying $10 for a drug that is dispensed free to heroin addicts? There are only two possibilities. Black market methadone is being sold both to heroin addicts enrolled in methadone programs who wish to increase their intake of the drug to a level that allows them the euphoric escape from reality they crave, and to primary methadone users — individuals addicted to or

Methadone Addiction

The current methadone controversy is a second case in point. Methadone is a synthetic drug that, taken in appropriate doses, can satisfy the heroin addict’s craving and prevent the appearance of withdrawal symptoms without inducing euphoria. Dosages above this “appropriate” level, however, are intoxicating becoming addicted to methadone itself. An ironic but likely possibility is that individuals may be using methadone in the mistaken belief that, since it is dispensed by the government, it must not be harmful.

In methadone we have a commodity that is in demand — either actually or potentially — and it should come as no surprise that a market has developed around it.

What we must realize is that certain men have existed in every society by pandering to the weaknesses and vices of their fellows. Their modus operandi is diabolically simple. Find a commodity or service for which there is a market, have government outlaw it, then move in and reap the rich financial rewards made possible by the artificially high price levels maintained by the government restrictions on the product. Not only is this technique profitable, it is relatively safe; for the greater the force with which government attempts to destroy such a market, the higher the price levels and the profits attendant on those prices. And the higher the profits, the more police officials, customs agents, and judges can be “bought” by the syndicate. Crackdowns initiated in response to public pressure will inevitably fall heaviest on the small operators, while the financiers and organizers sit tight in their penthouses until the heat is off once again.

The British Experience

Those that oppose the liberalization or repeal of our present drug laws often point to the “failure” of such an approach as in Great Britain. For many years narcotic drugs were available to British addicts by prescription. Then, in response to statistical indications that drug use was on the rise, the government clamped down. The conclusion drawn from this is that any letup in the government’s war on narcotics mandates a rise in the use of hard drugs. Several important points are overlooked by such a conclusion. First, although drug addiction undeniably increased in Britain during those years of limited restrictions, it never reached the epidemic proportions that it has in this country. Furthermore, a large part of that increase — perhaps the greater part — can be attributed to the large numbers of American addicts that emigrated to Britain so they could supply their habit without being driven to criminal acts. And that leads to a most important point: addiction in Britain has never been associated with crime to the extent that it is here. This, in fact, is the justification given for the methadone programs discussed earlier. An addict in a methadone program is as much an addict as the heroin addict in the street; no one has ever claimed for methadone maintenance the status of a cure. The difference is simply and only that the methadone patient need not steal to support his habit. Ironically, this is the central point raised by many “liberals” in attacking the methadone programs. Their argument, as stated in the Science article quoted above, is “that it is a sinister form of social control in that its only purpose is to cut down on addict-related crime.”

The principal opposition to liberalization or repeal of present drug laws comes from those who fear that this would be a significant step in what they view as a general breakdown in the moral fiber of our society. That this breakdown is all too real is undeniable, but the contention that so-called permissivity is the root cause of the problem is moot. Is it not, rather, that we have created a society in which the natural consequences of immoral or amoral behavior are not allowed to operate? It is not the intelligence or industriousness of the purveyor of hard drugs that makes it possible for him to sport $200 suits and drive $8000 automobiles. It is the action of government that has created his monopoly business.

If it were true that “permissivity” were the root cause of breakdowns in the moral order of society, then Soviet Russia or Communist China would be the examples to emulate in today’s world. In these countries, morality is rigidly enforced by state edict. The State defines morality and harshly punishes transgressions against it. Now, many of us object to the particular moral code that is imposed on the Russian and Chinese peoples. Does this mean that if a tyrant’s edicts were based on the “right” morality, that they would be any the less tyrannical? It is obvious that they would not. The very concept of morality is meaningless in any context in which the individual is not free to choose to act immorally. Certainly, any viable society must protect itself against those who would use force to violate the rights of others. It does not follow, however, that it is either desirable or proper that any government impose its idea of the good on its citizens. If we wish a society in which people behave honestly and self-reliantly, we cannot achieve it by force. Rather, let us create a social order in which virtue is its own reward.

A Perverted Order

What we have created in this century is the antithesis of such an order. We live in a world in which sloth is rewarded and individuals are protected, by government, from the natural consequences of their own immoral acts. At least, such is the professed intention of those who create governmental policy today. An individual does not wish to work? It is the responsibility of others to see that he is fed. An individual is careless with his life on the highway? Let us insulate all drivers from the consequences of carelessness and ineptitude with belts, airbags, helmets, and padding. An individual chooses to destroy his mind and body with narcotic drugs? Take away the drugs and, failing that, incarcerate or commit him for “his own good.”

If such policies did in fact lead to material prosperity, increased highway safety, and a decrease in the ranks of those whose minds and bodies are rotted away by narcotic drugs, they would still be abhorrent to anyone who valued freedom. The truth, however, is that they do no such thing. Instead, they foster the very problems they are designed to solve. The zombies who stalk our city streets in search of their next victim and their next fix are not a problem for government to solve but, rather, one more problem that government has created. And governments’ prescribed cure is a more virulent dose of the dread disease itself.



A Place to Draw the Line

The government tried to “protect” people from the ill effects of alcoholic beverages during 1918 to 1933 with notable lack of success. Their efforts not only failed in their stated purpose but in the process spawned the growth of an organized underworld that is with us today, encouraged corruption of public officials, and taught a general disrespect for the law that still plagues us.

The government’s efforts to outlaw gambling have had the same dismal results. So have the government’s efforts to prevent citizens from reading pornographic literature, or to regulate sex relations between consenting adults.

If any citizen wishes to engage in activities that are dangerous, considered immoral or frowned upon — which do not hurt anybody else — he should be free to do so.

Let’s draw the line for freedom and keep the government behind it. Let’s not pass any more laws to reduce our freedom by “protecting” us from our own actions.

B.V. Brooks, Jr., The Westport News (Connecticut) August 25, 1972