Measuring our (Failure at) Success


Wars, if we are to accept their necessity, need a goal by which we can measure success. The war on drugs is the poster child for a lack of goals.

This is not our first dance with wars lacking measurable goals. We have a recent history of sending troops into war without clear goals.

Korea. Technically we and our allies the South Koreans are still at war with the North, albeit paused by a truce that is 64 years old. So that’s a stalemate, with continuing implications today.

Vietnam. In 1973, we ended combat operations, declared victory, and went home. By 1975, the last vestiges of our efforts there were fleeing the country by helicopter from the roof of our Embassy.

One could say our foray into Afghanistan was based on sound argument, which we then squandered by moving into Iraq. This all started in 2001 and we still have troops on the ground.

No end in sight. No end defined to measure success.

In the continuing saga that is the war on drugs, the lack of a measurable goal or, depending on your perspective, our measure of failure continues.

For if this is indeed a war, we sorely lack measurable success. Unless our success is measured in the number of prisoners captured, then one might argue we’ve done very well.

I won’t bore you with numbers. I invite you to search for the information on your own. You might be surprised at what you find. You’d be shocked at the number of arrests, and associated costs, for possession of marijuana.

In light of the debate on legalizing personal use of marijuana, I will offer some perspective. The price of marijuana, compared to 1970’s and the beginning of the war, has fallen and availability has increased. (This is somewhat related to several states legalizing it yet need be included in our discussion. The camel’s nose is in the tent on that one.)

The price of cocaine has fallen and availability is up. In 1980 cocaine cost $100-150/gram. Today, it is $60-90. This doesn’t even consider the comparison of 1980 vs 2017 dollar.

In 2015, the federal government spent an estimated $15 billion dollars on the war on drugs. This doesn’t even take into consideration cost of housing prisoners.

If we want to measure success by the reduction of the number of people dying from illegal drugs, we failed there as well. Deaths have increased. Opioid overdoses are increasing.

I know I said I wouldn’t bore you with numbers, but here’s just one chart about deaths from drugs in 2015. (Marijuana didn’t make the top ten. There were no documented cases of death by marijuana toxicity.)

1 Tobacco 480,000 + deaths
2 Alcohol 26,654 deaths
3 Prescription Painkillers 16,235 deaths
4 Heroin 8,257 deaths

 

When a strategy is failing by all measures, doesn’t it make sense to change tactics? That’s what one does in a war. If something is causing more harm than good, you stop.

Focusing the bulk of our resources on criminalizing the personal use of substances such as marijuana is not achieving its expressed purpose. If adults can be trusted to make rational decisions when it comes to the risks of using substances such as tobacco and alcohol, with well documented, sometimes fatal, effects, then it may be time to reconsider the rationale behind making those same adults criminals if they choose to use marijuana.

This is not an argument for legalizing all drugs. I’m not certain legalizing marijuana is a sound policy. But I do know that continuing down the same path will fail. We will continue to turn otherwise law-abiding individuals into criminals, ignore the opportunity to focus our resources on addiction treatment and education, and stumble down the road to another measurable failure.

We’re not losing this war. We lost the war before we started because our policy consisted of Ready, Fire, Aim.

The Madness of Reefer Irrationality

Rationality has surpassed reason as the rarest of commodities in this country. The once common ability of Americans to hold intelligent, fact-based, discussions of our differences has gone the way of cursive writing and fundamental education.

Nothing exemplifies this phenomenon more than trying to have a reasoned discussion over the need for reevaluating the criminalization of marijuana.

Marijuana, like any drug, has benefits and risks. Yet, despite the scientific evidence which supports this, we insist on making possession of this drug a crime.

We accept the argument that alcohol, tobacco, or caffeine for that matter, used with restraint provide a benefit to the user despite the associated health risks. Some would argue we do this out of resignation to the reality of the widespread demand for these substances. Others would argue that we recognize the long cultural use of such substances. In either case, we recognized that controlling the use through rational regulations is the correct approach.

Why is it with marijuana we ignore such reality?

My time as a police officer taught me certain things. Drug abuse is a health issue, not a criminal issue. Every aspect of human life is subject to abuse; alcohol, gambling, eating, sexuality all cause addiction within a certain percentage of the population.

In these matters, we target the behavior of the individual not a blanket indictment of the means.

The science on marijuana being a “gateway” drug is nebulous at best and, in my anecdotal experience, wrong. The only thing criminalizing marijuana did was create generations of individuals with criminal records and foster an industry of privatized prisons.

Now I am not for one instant advocating the blanket decriminalization of marijuana. Much like the use of alcohol and tobacco, we need to defer to an individual adult’s right to determine the risk vs. benefit of using such substances. But we do this with associated laws that control the distribution and sales of such items.

One of the strongest arguments against “legalizing” marijuana is the effect it has on the adolescent brain. THC and other substances can affect the still developing circuitry.  As does alcohol and tobacco. Yet we have managed to find a rational way to minimize access to these substances.

The war on drugs failed, the war on people succeeded. If our goal through criminalizing the use of marijuana was to prevent its use, we failed. Need proof? There is not one zero-tolerance high school in this country where one cannot get marijuana. This is because we cannot control the distribution system. Keep in mind 49% of Americans have tried marijuana. Your gonna need more prisons to deal with that number.

If the goal of keeping marijuana illegal is to protect people from descending into the world of addiction than there must be some verifiable numbers which support this. I can find few scientifically based studies that show the use of marijuana increases the likelihood of addiction any more than the consumption of beer leads to alcoholism.

Despite the common perception by many who do not understand addiction, alcoholism is a well-established medical condition. Why would we treat any other addiction differently? Addictive behavior is a complicated matter.

Every alcoholic started with the first drink. Every drug addict started with that first high. Correlation is not causation. The process of developing an addiction includes a myriad of conditions and contributing factors.

I find it interesting that, despite the widely accepted number of more than 21000 suicides per year by firearms, no one considers that an equally egregious risk to society.

See somebody lighting up a joint, call the cops. See someone loading a gun, defend to the death their right to possess it.

Before the NRA and others get their panties in a bunch, I am not advocating taking away one’s right to own a firearm. I am just pointing out that someone loaded on a joint is less of a risk to society than an angry person with a firearm.

If we are willing to accept the fact that more than 21000 of our fellow Americans will kill themselves next year, I think we can find a way to accept the fact that several million Americans will get high on marijuana during the same period and do nothing more threatening than increase the sale of Cheetos.

In this election cycle, the hope for a return to rationality is nil. We’ve lost Pandora’s Box. I do hope that, before I leave this mortal coil, I will witness a return to an age of reason.