Reefer Madness Redux

Oxcodone is the new "gateway drug," or so federal prosecutors are reporting in their sentencing memoranda. Take some oxy, and you’re on the slippery slope to serious drug addiction. And let’s not forget the violence associated with drug dealing of all sorts. So let’s slam oxy dealers, and toss them into prison. We’re waging war for the soul of American, by golly.

Haven’t we heard all this before?

In the past 18 months or so, prosecutions for the distribution of oxycodone have exploded, or so it seems based on the volume of requests for representation our office receives, an admittedly unscientific survey instrument. Oxycodone is the new crack cocaine, just as crack was the new powder cocaine, and as powder cocaine was the new marijuana. Each wave of successive drug prosecutions is draped in the same old "reefer madness" rhetoric.

If you’ve never watched the film "Reefer Madness," you really should, especially if you are wearing a black robe and are sitting on the federal bench dealing out criminal sentences. The film is a 1936 piece of propaganda produced by Louis Gasnier about how smoking marijuana will lead to all manner of mayhem, death and destruction. The film was dead serious in its time; today it looks like comedic satire.

Smoke a joint, and dance with the devil. Marijuana was regarded as the gateway drug to the darker of the deadly sins, sins like lust, and its forbidden fruit, rape. Or anger, and its close cousin murder. Marijuana destroys lives, the film shouts.

I am willing to bet that nicotine and alcohol addiction have caused more deaths and cost more in terms of public health than all the illegal drug use combined in the United States this century. Yet we provide agricultural subsidies to tobacco dealers, and we license liquor salesmen to sell seven days a week, taxing both every chance we can. We tried to make alcohol illegal, but realized that the demand was eternal. Criminalizing the inevitable did not make sense, so we repealed prohibition.

When will we come to our senses and realize that the war on drugs is just like the failed war on alcohol? Does anyone really believe that locking up one cadre of drug dealers after another is going to make a dent in what is really a public health problem? Go ahead and lock up thousands of dealers, thousands more will take their place. Drug dealers don’t get rich creating demand, they get rich selling to folks who seem intent on buying, no matter who is selling.

I’m more than a little tired of the grand rhetoric we use to congratulate ourselves as a society. We are a city on a hill. Yet, rather than singing hallelujah, many Americans are lost in a self-medicated haze of drug addiction. We tolerate the zombies among us rather than doing the hard work of assuring that all Americans have opportunities for a productive life.

We are the land of the free. Yet we incarcerate more people per capita than any other nation on Earth. And our criminal sentences are longer for almost every class of crime than anywhere else on the planet. We love to hate; we are a prison nation.

Most of those locked away in prison are there for drug offenses. We call them violent, but many are merely ill. Recall the shoot ‘em ups of the Prohibition? They disappeared once alcohol was legal and regulated. There just wasn’t any profit in organized crime’s selling alcohol once the state decided to legalize it and regulate its sale. Is Mexico returning to the state of nature, ruled now by drug lords? Legalize their product and let it produced in the United States and watch the gangs disappear.

I am bitter about it all because I lost a good young man to a long prison sentence this week. He was an oxycodone salesman. He was sent to prison for 7.5 years. The sentence was actually a gift of sorts: federal sentencing guidelines called for a sentence of more than 10 years. Some gift.

Seven and half years is a long, long time to spend in prison for the act of selling pills to people who want to use them. I sat with the man’s family after the sentencing and tried to help them understand the law. I failed. The same hunger on the streets drives the sale of oxycodone today as it did yesterday. Only now, a young man will spend more than half a decade sitting in federal prison. It is a waste of resources, and the waste of a young life.

This grand farce we call the war on drugs makes no sense. It’s reefer madness one substance at a time. The drugs change; only the rhetoric remains the same. And little changes. Imagine how different the world would look if we used the millions we spend on prisons creating jobs, treatment programs for drug users and opportunities for all. Why we could even fund these programs on taxes for drugs regulated by the state.

Do I hate the war on drugs? You bet I do. It’s Reefer Madness all over again, although the results are far from funny. Yes, oxycodone addiction is dangerous. But so is nicotine and alcohol addiction. Don’t try to tell me otherwise.

Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.


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