Social Policy and Illicit Drugs
[Reprinted from Land & Liberty,
NEW YORK'S Governor Rockefeller made a stir when he proposed
life-imprisonment with no parole for pushers of illicit drugs. While
there was strong criticism of this proposal, opinion polls indicate
that the majority of the people -- not only in New York but throughout
the US - agree with this measure.
Such a reaction is in line with the concern of most Americans about
crime, which is regarded as today's Number One problem. Drugs are
closely associated with crime, so no wonder there is much agreement
with the Governor. Whether he was playing to the gallery or thought he
really had something, he touched a responsive chord.
Yet it must be noted that this Draconian proposal was an about-face
from Rockefeller's previous sponsorship of an elaborate rehabilitation
programme for drug addicts. This programme, costing many millions of
dollars, was a dismal failure, and it looks as though the present
stance is a reaction of angry frustration.
Rockefeller and his supporters brush aside objections as to the cost
of his punitive measure with rhetoric about the cost to society of not
putting drug pushers in prison. Yet the costs cannot be so readily
dismissed. Those acquainted with the legal and penal systems point out
that already courts and prisons are overburdened and cannot handle
even the present load without more funds.
Indeed every new proposal, as well as every drug programme now in
effect, involves costs that are staggering and unrealistic. For
example, a methadone maintenance and rehabilitation programme for
heroin addicts -- with uncertain results -- costs thousands of dollars
per year per addict.
The common cry for more police is another thought, less reaction. In
addition to the cost to the taxpayer, extra police would probably
create extra problems. Big money is involved in the drug traffic and
pay-offs to policemen are already notorious. Nearly $100 million of
heroin, captured by New York police in the famous "French
connection" case, and stored in various police stations, has been
stolen and every indication points to an inside job.
Elaborate and expensive law enforcement on federal, state and local
levels occasionally cracks open a drug ring. But for every connection
or pusher put out of business there are more to step into the ranks --
for the illicit drug traffic has a world-wide and well-organized
set-up. The street pusher upon whom the wrath of Rockefeller and
company is vented is the last and lowliest link in a vast and powerful
chain. The pusher is usually a victimized addict himself.
Even drug education has been a failure. The effort to tell young
people about drugs has produced ludicrous "scare" films and
programmes. Besides arousing laughter, they also arouse curiosity
about drugs, thus leading to more not less drug abuse.
What then can be done? The answer -- disarmingly simple -- was
offered by a letter-writer to Time magazine who said that the
drug problem is not that drugs are supplied but that people want to
That's it of course -- as long as there is a demand there is bound to
be a supply -- but it is no doubt too simple and basic for politicians
who are seldom philosophers. If people stopped wanting to take drugs,
the whole problem, the whole crime syndicate, would vanish overnight
without costing society a penny. It would be pertinent, therefore, to
inquire into why so many people are taking drugs.
A comprehensive study was undertaken by the Ford Foundation on the
subject of drugs, and among its findings are the following:
Most illicit drugs do not do as much physical harm as is supposed.
(Excessive consumption of anything can cause harm; and the
psychological state of the drug user must also be considered.) Indeed,
the social costs in terms of crime and punishment are far greater.
The very fact of illegality makes illicit drugs attractive (as was
alcohol during Prohibition days). Part of the reason too is the youth
revolt. Peer pressures among young people are very strong, and
interestingly there is currently a swing away from heroin amongst them
-- not because of law enforcement or "education" but because
young people have found that it produces too many "bad trips"
and peer pressure is inducing other youngsters to switch to less
The Ford Foundation report also conjectures that the desire for "consciousness-expanding"
experiences, far from being abnormal, is a universal trait in mankind
which our culture does not provide for or encourage and even
discourages, thus paving the way to the underground method of drugs.
Disillusion with the American Dream also has much to do with the
escape into the fantasy land of drugs. The well-to-do take drugs as a
relief from the tensions and pressures of modern living. But the
highest incidence of drug abuse is in slums and poverty-ridden urban
areas, especially among depressed minorities such as Negroes and
Puerto Ricans as well as disaffected youths and "drop-outs"
from society. It would appear to be a substitute for the good life
which is denied them - a substitute which turns out to be expensive
because illegal and so leads to crime.
The matter of legalizing drugs in America, as in Britain, is from
time to time broached (though drug abuse in Britain has never reached
the proportions it has in America). Somehow or other this proposal
gets side-tracked, thus provoking the dark suspicion that there is too
much investment in the illegality of drugs to make the switch.
But the more basic problem of why so many people take drugs leads us
to basic social and economic considerations. It leads us to poverty,
the "rat race" and other failures of our superficially "straight"
culture. No wonder politicians want to rant against pushers rather
than face up to questions that would require some fundamental
re-thinking and re-ordering of our society.
1. Dealing with Drug Abuse, a
report to the Ford Foundation by the Drug Abuse Survey Project,
Praeger Publishers, 1972.