Unequal Justice for All

The Stigma of Drug Addiction Is Reserved for the Less Fortunate


The story of drug prohibition is one of the most tragicomic chapters in modern Western history. Luckily, it is not true that, as Hegel famously said, “The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.”

Drug prohibition is stupid social policy for many reasons, most obviously because forbidden fruit tastes sweeter; that is, because one of the easiest ways for a young person to assert his autonomy is by defying authority, especially arbitrary and hypocritical authority.

“Adam,” wrote Mark Twain in Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar (1894), “was but human—this explains it all. He did not want the apple for the apple’s sake, he wanted it only because it was forbidden. The mistake was in not forbidding the serpent; then he would have eaten the serpent.”

In 1927 the International Herald-Tribune reported: “A proposal that the Federal Government should segregate convicted drug addicts on McNeill Island, near Tacoma, Washington, where ‘the icy water of Puget Sound serve as prison walls,’ was endorsed by the Conference of Committees of the World Conference on Narcotic Education just concluded here [New York City]. The Rev. Albert Sidney Gregg, of Cleveland, who advanced the proposal, explained, ‘Addiction should be classed with smallpox, cancer or leprosy, and provision made for a cure of isolation.’”

Note that the proposal was made by a clergyman and that he classified illegal drug use as a contagious disease such as smallpox and also as an incurable disease such as cancer, and referred to life-long incarceration as “isolation.” Thirty-eight years later, William F. Buckley wrote: “And so the disease spreads in geometric proportion, and permits us to generalize that: narcotics is a contagious disease. . . . [Hence,] it becomes necessary to treat it as a plague. New York should undertake to quarantine all addicts, even as smallpox carriers would be quarantined during a plague. The narcotics problem is properly a federal problem because the contagion is country-wide.” (Buckley has since moderated his views, but he still embraces the medical metaphor of “addiction.”)

Others and I have offered our reasoning for and against drug prohibition. However, when a social policy is as unreasonable as the war on drugs, and at the same time politicians and people regard it as absolutely indispensable for maintaining the integrity of society, reasoning is futile.

One need not be an expert on criminology to recognize that poor and very unimportant persons are more likely to be the victims of criminal laws than rich and very important persons, not merely because they have more incentives to break the law, but also because they have fewer resources with which to protect themselves from its enforcement. For the past half century or more, there is no area of criminal law where this has been more true than in the area of drug law. I offer three dramatic examples.

Winona Ryder

During the fall of 2002, Winona Ryder—a young, beautiful, famous movie star—was much in the news for being charged with, tried for, and convicted of shoplifting from a Saks Fifth Avenue store in Beverly Hills. According to her probation report, “Ryder had 37 prescriptions filled by 20 doctors from January 1996 to December 1998.” She was sentenced to probation and “drug and psychiatric counseling.”

The media identified only one of the doctors who supplied her with controlled substances, Dr. Jules Lusman. After Lusman was identified as Ryder’s drug supplier, it turned out that he also “served raunchy rocker Courtney Love with a cabinet full of prescription drugs. . . . The long prescription-writing arms of embattled Dr. Jules Lusman—fingered last week as Ryder’s personal Dr. Feel Good—have snared Love in an ever-growing Hollywood medication scandal. Lusman’s name first came to light when L.A. County probation officers—investigating Ryder after she was convicted of shoplifting—found evidence of the actress’ frequent use of painkillers.” Lusman’s punishment: loss of his license to practice medicine.

Elvis Presley

The popular image of Elvis Presley—that when he was not making music he was making love—could not have been more false. During much of his career Presley’s main interest in life was drugs: getting drugs, taking drugs, lying about drugs, and above all else, participating in the America’s Holy War against drugs. Presley obtained vast quantities of controlled substances—Quaalude, Placidyl, Demerol, Dilaudid, Dexedrine, and Biphetamine—by receiving prescriptions for them from his doctors.

In 1970 President Richard Nixon appointed Presley an agent of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. When Elvis walked into the Oval Office, he was high as a kite. Nevertheless, he was a national hero. He is even more of a national hero today. He was never charged with any violation of the drug laws.

After Presley died his personal physician, George Nichopolous, was charged with “criminally overprescribing” sedatives, stimulants, and painkillers for him. A Tennessee jury acquitted him. In 1980 the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners revoked Nichopolous’s medical license for “indiscriminately prescribing” more than 5,000 pills and vials for Presley in the seven months before his death in August 1977.

John F. Kennedy

Despite the efforts of the Kennedy family mythmakers, we now know that had JFK been an ordinary American, he would have been stigmatized as a “junkie.” In 1972 even the New York Times considered it fit to reveal that, in 1961, Max Jacobson, M.D., “traveled with the president to Vienna for the summit meeting with Khrushchev and . . . gave the president injections there.” According to Seymour Hersh, “Kennedy was a heavy user of what were euphemistically known as ‘feel-good’ shots, consisting of high dosages of amphetamines. . . . Dr. Max Jacobson, the New York physician who administered the shots, was a regular visitor to the White House and accompanied the president on many foreign trips; his name was all over the official logs. . . . Jacobson’s license to practice medicine was revoked in 1975.”

John F. Kennedy and Elvis Presley are our mythic national heroes. No one calls them “addicts.” We reserve that stigma—masked as a “diagnosis”—for unimportant people who engage in exactly the same behavior.

Winona Ryder remains an admired movie star. Anti-drug ads do not show her face to illustrate that this is what you look like when your brain is on drugs.

But there is hope. Our new drug czar has finally come out of the closet. On December 19, 2002, John Walters advised formerly pot-smoking parents in New Orleans to lie: “‘They’re your kids, not your confessors,’ said John Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. ‘Don’t treat them like your peers. Treat them like your children’” (New Orleans Times-Picayune,December 20, 2002).

That’s the ticket: treat the whole nation like a bunch of stupid kids. LIE!