Another Unworkable Approach to Drugs

Recently I was talking to a friend with many decades of experience in several areas of law enforcement. It wasn’t an interview, just two guys chewing the fat. The subject of drugs came up, and of what to do about them. His solution, which he regarded as the least of several evils, was to build more prisons and lock up more criminals.

Now, we both understood that the United States lacks the political will to do anything at all about drugs. Name your solution. It isn’t going to happen. But speculation is fun. In other columns we’ve looked at the case for legalization. Let’s consider imprisonment.

Jailing drug dealers forever has an appeal if you are aware of what drugs do to the country. Selling drugs, like using them, is sometimes said to be a victimless crime. No. A very high proportion of burglary, mugging, robbery, and shoplifting is done by addicts looking for money for their next rock. When you find prostitutes of nineteen ruining themselves on the street, you often find that they are supporting a habit. (I think “almost always” would be accurate, but I don’t have the stats in front of me.) A lot of abuse and neglect of children occurs because mommy is more interested in dope than in kids.

Most of us don’t see this up close. It’s there, it’s big, and it’s ugly. When you do see it, it’s easy to think, “Let’s put these animals away forever.”

It won’t work. One reason is that drug use is too widespread, and the users are often sellers too. You can’t imprison a substantial fraction of a country.

What do you do with the high-school student who is selling ecstasy? High school kids sell each other drugs, serious drugs, all the time. We are simply not going to stuff lots of shiny white kids from McLean into prison.

Do we then put more black dealers in the slam? Blacks might then ask why their men were being punished while white kids weren’t. It would be a good question. Given the level of racial tension in the country, there is a limit to how many blacks we can imprison.

There are reasons why blacks get hit more with drug charges. If middle class whites use cocaine, as bunches do, they get it discreetly and use it privately. This doesn’t make it legal, but it makes them unlikely to be caught. In black parts of downtown, drugs are often sold in highly visible open-air markets. The police tend to arrest criminals they can see and that people complain about. They don’t see the white (or black) lawyer with the half-million dollar house doing a line of coke at home.

Even if we kept putting more and more dealers in jail, things would probably not get appreciably better. And it wouldn’t stop the selling. The fact is that people want drugs, as they wanted hooch during Prohibition. There is enough money in drugs, and so few other things that illiterate underclass males can do to make a living, that dealers jailed will quickly be replaced by new dealers. Or so it appears to me. However many prisons we built, I suspect, we would find them quickly filled. Then what?

Jailing users is tricky. For days on end I’ve watched open-air markets run by blacks. At many of these, the customers are chiefly lower-class whites. Mostly they work, and do not support their habits by crime. What good does it do to put a messed-up cosmetologist in prison? She’s probably neglecting her kids and having trouble at work because of drugs, but jailing her won’t help.

The police I’ve been with in fact arrest a lot more white users than black dealers. They aren’t discriminating against whites. It’s just that users are easier to catch. And when they get out, they start using again, and like as not get arrested again.

The notion of combing prison with rehabilitation is a bad one. It sounds good to middle-class white voters, which is why rehab exists. People like to feel that they’re doing good. The truth is that if you put a guy in the slam for using, or for stealing to buy, the first thing he’s going to do when he gets out is to look for drugs. Rehab is like vocational training to teach criminals to be computer programmers. It seldom works. The rehabbed user goes back to the same streets. He’s quickly back into the life.

Prison won’t work. But then, nothing else will either.

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