Waging War on Drugs-The Wrong Ones

It isn’t at all clear to me why Officer Joseph Gray, who was

drinking in a topless bar for hours before he killed four family members in a

drunk-driving accident, was engaging in a perfectly legal activity, while any

number of black mothers who, say, transported a package of coke from downtown

to uptown for their boyfriend are spending Rockefeller time in jail. Alcohol

abuse remains a disease, while drug abuse remains a crime. Go figure.

Selling booze can get you a house in the suburbs; selling

heroin can get you a cell upstate. The alcohol industry has an interest in

making it seem like drugs are the mark of sin, while alcohol is only misused by

people who need to find their higher power. With the shamefaced repeal of

Prohibition, we capitulated to the bootleggers, whose descendants are now major

philanthropists, stock owners, second-home owners on the boards of our cultural

institutions, and whose children are born with an ivy leaf in their mouths.

Cigarette abuse (which is almost any use of cigarettes) is

perfectly legal, even though it costs us a fortune to take care of the

illnesses it brings. There are no tobacco-sniffing dogs at airports. There are

no sting operations at Philip Morris. We are not leveling the tobacco fields in

the Carolinas. We do nothing, even though one could

argue that cigarettes do more harm than pot, coke and heroin, than speed,

Ecstasy and OxyContin together.

What we do have is a failed war on drugs. Everyone knows

it’s a failure, but no one’s willing to be the one to raise the flag of

surrender. The price tag on that stymied war-in dollars as well as lives-makes Vietnam

seem like we emptied a child’s piggy bank. The Clinton

era’s ill-advised expansion of that war in Colombia

will do to that country what always happens when American armies become

policemen: Peasants will suffer, militias will run wild, democracy

will take a back seat. Under the guise of chasing down drug lords, the civil

liberties, health and welfare needs of the population will wither as the right

wing of the army gains control and operates with better and better

American-supplied technology. Soon the poppy, coca and marijuana growers will

move on to other mountain tops, leaving behind toxic fields sprayed with your

tax dollars that will poison unborn children, taint drinking water and leave

rashes on the faces of those without access to clinics. Hurray for our side.

I’m not some ax-wielding suffragette trying to smash the bar

mirrors. “Temperance” is a word,

like “abstinence,” that makes me want to streak down 42nd

Street. This is a free country, and people should

be allowed to slit their own throats if they wish-or at least our laws need to

balance competing visions of freedom. I know all the problems involved in

legislating virtue. It never works. It breeds other crimes and gives toeholds

to mafias, making criminals of ordinary citizens, etc. But my life-like the

lives of Officer Gray’s family and the family of his victims, Maria Herrera,

her sons Andy and Dorian, and her teenage sister Dilcia Peña-has been stained

by someone who couldn’t face the day without altering their mood, juggling the

chemicals in their body, shooting something in, gulping something down,

changing the inner reality to one that appeared more pleasing-at least for a


I do not view drugs as an inner-city problem, a

high-school-dropout problem or as someone else’s tragedy. What I see is a

nation of millions who can’t tolerate life as it is. They can’t just go home

after work, as Officer Gray should have done, and kiss their kids. They can’t

just go to sleep when they’re tired or go for a run in the park when they need

to figure out why their wife is blue or the boss is angry at them. Instead,

they go to the park with a bottle and drink until they pass out, or go to a bar

and watch artificial blues and reds flicker through the night as commercials

tempt them to buy bigger and bigger cars that can climb bigger and bigger


Sure, lots of people drink, drug, smoke in moderation. Why

shouldn’t we have a little pleasure, something that serves as a relaxing bath

at the end of the day? Who is to say what is too much and what is just right,

and who am I to wish it otherwise? But I do. I wish that a democratic genie

working magic in the salt mines of the human soul would transform the bars into

bookstores. The shelves on which packs of cigarettes are now sold could contain

candy. I wish that loneliness could be met with a frontal attack, genuine

friendships could replace bad habits and that sexual yearnings could be

satisfied by actual body-to-body contact, not topless bars or drug rushes to

the wobbly brain. If any industry has to be downsized in this economy, I wish

it were the cartels and the gangs and the narcs at the airports and the ones

zooming around the Caribbean in boats, their American

flags waving in the breeze. I wish all the tobacco lobbyists and their lawyers

had to be retrained as high-school math teachers. (I believe in giving even the

worst offenders a chance for a second career.) I wish my own child, who slid

into drugs, had instead rushed into poetry or astronomy.

In the meantime, it would be possible to use our drug-war

money for rehab centers. They don’t work magic either, and their statistics of

permanent recovery are nothing to take to the bank. But they are the only game

in town that promises to cut consumption and return a life or two to a world

that awaits them, has missed them, can use their voice, their touch, their

presence. We could also criminalize cigarettes and decriminalize marijuana. We

could order nightclubs to keep ambulances and paramedics on staff. We could put

A.A. chapters in every police precinct, every firehouse, every

church. On second thought, we’ve probably done that already, and it isn’t

enough-not nearly.

Maybe we could hypnotize every newborn before it leaves the

hospital: “You will be happy no matter what is done to you by your parents, your

school, your surroundings.” “You will be happy and

never need to alter your reality. You will love and be loved your whole life

through.” “You, little Joseph Gray, will never drink and drive. Your life will

be filled with satisfaction: with your job, your wife, your

children. You will not want more than you have. You will be a model citizen.”

I must be overheated to have thought up that one.

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