No Mom, We Shouldn’t Kill the Drug Dealers

My mother works for the defense department and just got back from a trip to Singapore for my little brother’s debate tournament. While she was in the airport she noticed a sign like this:

Drug sign

She brought it up in conversation the next time we talked, mentioning what a great idea it would be for getting rid of drug users. We proceeded to argue, and most of her points circled back to either 1. how clean it was in that city! Or 2. How drug addicts were such a terrible strain on society that any intrusion by the government was justified if it got those ruined people off the streets.

This is precisely the sort of argument I started this blog to deal with. There are between fifteen and twenty million users of illegal drugs here in the United States. My mom isn’t the first conservative I’ve heard advocate something like this and, to her credit, I don’t believe she actually thinks all those people should be killed. She just comes from a generation and political orientation that believes you have to “get tough” in order to make serious change. If you kill a few of the worse eggs, everyone else will jump in line.

“The War on Drugs” sounds like just another hyperbolic euphemism, but there’s a whole mess of people who take it literally. American police departments have their own armored special forces teams, tanks and helicopters. Even beat cops in suburban neighborhoods are likely to carry enormous assault rifles in their squad cars. So what has all this heavy-handed justice won us?

Nothing. Back in 2008 the World Health Organization released a massive study of drug use in 17 countries and found that the people in the U.S. use illegal drugs with more frequency than people anywhere else in the world. This is in spite of the fact that we have some of the harshest drug laws on earth. But hey, maybe we aren’t being harsh enough. There are plenty of hippy states like Colorado and California where those dastardly drug users can peddle their wares in peace. That must be inflating the numbers.

So we’ll look at Singapore. If their drug laws are successful, it would stand to reason that drug use is at an all-time low, and probably getting lower. It wouldn’t make much sense if the death penalty for drug trafficking lead to an increase in drug trafficking. If that were the case, the law would be completely ineffective and needlessly bloodthirsty..

Which…it is. Despite being the world’s top executioner, Amnesty International has found “no convincing evidence” that the state’s drug laws have had an effect. In 2002, Singapore’s rate of new drug offenders increased by 16%. Heroin has been on the rise consistently since 2006 and Methamphetamine is also on a steady rise. While it’s true that Singapore recently reported a 5% drop in drug arrests, they later recanted and admitted a 5% increase in arrests.

And these aren’t long-time addicts who just can’t quit the smack. Singapore’s percent of first-time drug offenders has increased every year on record, to a new high of 46% in 2010.

For comparison, we’ll look at nation’s with comparatively more lenient drug laws. Spain and Portugal have both decriminalized possession of all narcotics. Critics will note that Marijunana and Cocaine use have both increased in Spain. But frequent use in these drugs has decreased, with more experimental users and far fewer regular users. Frequent heroin use also saw a decline, along with the use of ecstasy, amphetamines, sedatives and psychedelics.

Portugal has seen their number of deaths from street overdoses plummet from 400 to 290 annually over the last five years. The number of HIV infections from dirty needles has also dropped, from 1400 per year to just 400. Proponents of a tough stance on drug users claim to be doing it for the children- well, Portugal’s rate of teen drug use is on the decline. There’s no evidence of the same decline in Singapore.

But if you really want to reduce the rates of dangerous addiction and cut down on the cost to the country, you might consider just giving free drugs to addicts. The Netherlands provides heroin to their worst junkies, and they’ve seen the cost to the state of each junkie decrease by around 13,000 euros per person per year. Safe, high-quality drugs taken in a clean setting means no overdoses, no infections, and no people stealing stereos for cash. There’s a reason the Netherlands has one of the lowest rates of problem drug users in the entire world.

It’s crucial to make that distinction between “problem” and “non-problem” drug users. Only about a third of drug users in America are considered serious addicts, and no amount of law enforcement seems to make that total number bulge. But decriminalization- which, at its fundamental level is a separation between drug users and the drug business, decreases the number of problem users in every case we’ve seen. The fact that it causes a spike in the experimental use of some substances shouldn’t be of concern. Studies have shown that casual drug use has no negative impact on job performance or earnings.

The consequences of drug use are heavily publicized in our country, and it’s easy to see why any parent would fear for their child’s safety. But we can’t let that fear lead us to blindly smite a huge segment of our population. Most of the arguments in favor of the war on drugs are rooted in emotion, keeping the kids safe and cleaning up the streets. “We should threaten all the drug dealers with death!” is the kind of thing that feels good to say. So good that many people never bother to look at the numbers to see if that approach has ever helped.

It’d be nice if we could just let the frightened parents of the world go on holding to their opinions. But this isn’t the kind of thing we can chalk up to a difference of opinions. When people go on believing that a tough, militaristic approach is the best way to combat drug addiction, they make the world a worse place with every election cycle. People like my mom are wrong on this one, and they have to know it.

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36 Responses to No Mom, We Shouldn’t Kill the Drug Dealers

  1. Paul says:

    I find your numbers and statements intriguing. The only reason I’d want to legalize marijuana is just to give “potheads” no more reason to talk.

    • Trish says:

      Trust me, they would still talk. A while back, as I was driving my youngest to school, I had NPR turned on and we were listening to a story about legalization in California. The authorities they talked to were all for legalization. And then they talked to the potheads/growers. They wanted legalization as well, but they wanted it on their terms. They didn’t want the quantity limited that they could grow, they didn’t wanted the varieties limited etc. One man, who grows illegally out of his garage (on a side note, he gave his full name and the town he lived in), complained that he would no longer be able to make enough money to live on with the restrictions they wanted in place. Another woman by the name of Butterfly Glitterdust, or something as equally ridiculous, bemoaned the fact that so many different rare types of pot plants were going to be lost due to restrictions of limited varieties.
      At this point, my son turned to me with his jaw agape and said “Wait, so the authorities want to make it legal and the potheads are arguing against it?” I told him that it sure seemed so. When he said that it made no sense, I told him that’s why he should avoid it in the first place. Having him listen to that story was way better than the D.A.R.E. program =)

      • Dan says:

        Hey Trish, am I right in thinking that the basis of your opinion – and what you said to your son – is that drug users aren’t happy with the terms they are being offered therefore they don’t make sense, so drugs shouldn’t be experienced full stop?
        If you were allowed legal restricted freedom how would you react?
        Would you just be happy with what you get because it has the word legal or freedom in the title, or would you ask for full freedom?

        On a side note, you noted that a man who gave his full name to the news report was ridiculous, and then also someone with a clearly made up ‘just for tv’ name was just as ridiculous as him.

      • kb says:

        Dan, the name Butterfly Glitterdust wasn’t made up for tv. The author was referring to the fact that the person had a ridiculous birth name because of hippy parents, as it is not uncommon for them to name their children “Rainbow” and “Butterfly”.

      • PDR1987 says:

        I’m confused. I’m not north american so I don’t know much about your laws but if someone’s planting marijuana and it’s illegal should they be arrested? They are allowed to give interviews while breaking the law?

        And if a farmer has restrictions on what he can plant and he argues that ‘he no longer [will] be able to make enough money to live’ with those restrictions, I think he has a damn good point there.

        You seem one of many that seem to dislike drug users much more than you dislike drugs and their effects and it’s a shame that people like you exist, with such low amount of respect and care for your fellow human being. Too bad for your kid.

      • wm97 says:

        Sounds like they wanted regulations somewhat similar to alcohol. You can make your own booze at home. There aren’t any restrictions on what kind of wine or beer you can make. What difference does it make to the regulatory authorities, anyway?

        If you really want to entertain your boy, read him the story of how marijuana came to be illegal in the first place. See http://druglibrary.org/schaffer/History/whiteb1.htm It contains lots of entertaining stories like “All Mexicans are crazy and marijuana is what makes them crazy,” “Marijuana will turn you into a bat,” etc., etc. It is the transcript of a speech given to a conference of judges. The judges were laughing all through it.

      • wm97 says:

        PDR1987 says:
        “I’m confused. I’m not north american so I don’t know much about your laws but if someone’s planting marijuana and it’s illegal should they be arrested? They are allowed to give interviews while breaking the law?”

        One short explanation. It is wildly out of control. They recently busted one farm of about 55 acres in the Central Valley. Then they discovered that the entire farm had been rented out in small plots by individuals to grow a few plants each. Each one of the individual plots was within California law, but the whole thing added up to 55 acres.

        The authorities did what they usually do. They hacked all the plants down without any clear legal authority. It is still an open question whether anyone will be prosecuted, simply because there are so many possible defendants involved that it would be an absolute mess.

    • PDR1987 says:

      You find Evans ‘numbers and statements intriguing’? How is that? Because they are real? Because you don’t understand numbers, so their fabled nature eludes and intrigues you? Yours is a condescending commentary and you last sentence demonstrates just what an imbecile you are: you obviously dislike ‘potheads’ and their arguments but have no decent counter facts to back your opinion, because it’s not backed by facts itself.

      • Josh says:

        wow man that was well said it made my jaw drop, and as a person who has seen both the up and down side of pot i got to say to limit it is only going to fuel the fire, to live in a place that says freedom is free but to this point isnt what this country stands for, or more accurately we are a nation that says it is what we stand for when our society produces exactly that,

  2. J. Hay says:

    Great article – a topic I’ve always wanted to write on. Punishment to me seems much more like a totem – an inherited idea – than a sensible, practical solution. Those who defend it can only say that it feels right, which it often does. But this feeling is very important, as punishment persists and persists and just won’t go away in our public dialogue about crime – while practical solutions arise, offer themselves and whither away due to disinterest.

    A few years ago, New Mexico decided to repeal the death penalty, and I remember hearing the speeches of those that disagreed the decision on the radio – bizarre, near-mystical harangues about “God’s justice” that had absolutely nothing to do with what is ultimately the humble, simple job of state government to deal with social problems.

    My guess (as a lay, speculative psychologist) is that this will always be a problem as long as people aren’t trained to use their imagination in a constructive way. Imagination is a skill, just like any other, and when people don’t know how to control it, they can’t handle the inevitable strain and allow nonsensical ideas to wreak havoc in areas that require simple solutions and a dry attention to statistics and facts.

  3. Lolzors says:

    It’s also worth considering, vis-a-vis Netherlands and drugs, that the Dutch police are feckin’ brutal. Seriously, seriously unpleasant thugs. They make the US police look saintly.

    • shadowspring says:

      Doubt it. America police are as brutal as they can get away with, and they are always pushing the envelope around here, up to and including tazing little old ladies in nursing home parking lots and middle school girls walking down the hall. I saw what they did at UC Davis and other Occupy protests this year. Nope, US police will never look saintly.

    • Bernardo says:

      That’s because people in the Netherlands have the right to resist arrest both physically and by running away, so cops don’t mess around if they have you. Not saying that it’s good to beat on people, but it’s worth noting.

    • Henry says:

      Rubbish. Dutch police are known for their tolerance. I have visited the country a dozen or so times and know this to be true. US police are vile.

  4. It’s really interesting what we choose to punish in the United States. Even if it doesn’t work, doesn’t make sense, and costs 40480958569857x more.

    But, golly busting up those “low-lifes” sure does FEEL good!

    Thank you so much for writing this. It’s going to be really good for trolling MY mom.

    • Carol the Long Winded says:

      I think this is exactly why it is done. The US penal system is designed to punish people – not to prevent crime or rehabilitate people. It is to make (non-criminals) feel good. That’s why the amazingly expensive death penalty is legal – because it somehow makes some people feel better because a murderer is killed.

      • Wendy says:

        Punishment by definition is any action which is meant to deter an undesired action. It doesn’t have to be painful or even unpleasant. It’s weird to say, but if you legalize drug use and it has the net effect of reducing drug use and drug related crimes– then the decriminalization of drug use becomes an effective punishment.

    • wm97 says:

      Psychology studies consistently show that people will go out of their way to punish people that they perceive are “cheating” at something. People will even go so far as to lose money themselves, just for the pleasure of punishing people. I have heard a lot of people say that they prefer punishing people for drugs even if it costs more money and produces worse results.

  5. shadowspring says:

    I am far more afraid of my children being victims of police brutality than any problem related to drug use. We talk regularly, about the idiocy of the continued Prohibition, but more important for their safety, about the brutality with which police treat suspects (whether guilty or not) and the draconian measures our courts deal out for all less affluent people who are found guilty of any crime.

    I know dozens of people who have continued with recreational drug use since their youth, respected people with high paying jobs. Obviously, occasional drug use does not turn happy, healthy people into homeless addicts. On the other hand, they risk losing everything they have worked so hard to build if they are ever caught. The law is ridiculous, but the people who pass and enforce them are deadly serious about destroying the lives of anyone who steps out of the lines they have drawn for our society.

    So execution is on some minds now? It is so scary to look at the end of the path to which self-righteousness leads.

    Shaking my head in disbelief,
    A mom in the South

  6. matschpfütze says:

    The sign says “Death for drug traffickers”, not users. A law which would have all addicts killed would never make it through of course.
    I guess even with the risk of getting executed it’s worth it for the dealers because you can make an incredible amout of money selling drugs.

    Also, have if you haven’t seen it already I highly recommend the film “Traffic”. It’s about all the problems in America concernicg drug trafficking.

  7. editor73 says:

    Your well-researched approach is just what the internet needs. I think I love you.

  8. Girl Reads says:

    Ron Paul. ‘Nuff said.

  9. thisisnotariot says:

    Great article. This is a debate that is just starting here in the UK, and about time too.

    It’s worth mentioning that the reasons specified above are not exhaustive, by any means. When one considers the sheer level of harm reduction internationally that legalisation would enable over night, it seems like an obvious no brainer. Which is the thing that has always confused me about South American states like Mexico; why aren’t they leading the charge on this? Taxation and regulation of a legal drug trade would give them a fighting chance. There must be a lot of pressure from their north american neighbours…

  10. Lala says:

    Loved this. Especially that you included the part about the Netherlands. It’s amazing how many people don’t know about them giving heroin to serious addicts and how that has really effected the condition of their drug situation. So glad I read that article on Cracked and found you!!

  11. Albertaboy says:

    Someone forwards this to Steven Harper please

  12. Fourat J says:

    Great blog post buddy. I recently write my own diatribe on the War on Drugs. It seems to finally be gaining traction and getting people to talk. Nice work!

  13. Ellis Cain says:

    great but you also should make people who read your article aware that south east asia and mexico are major trafficking routes and so suppliers of all your american smackheads in the first place hense the reason that the punishments are so servere, (also pressure from international governments to control the issue) also social and economic circumstances of each country involved that would obviously create differing rate in use. Capital punshiment serves no purpose and never appears to promote law abidence, this much is obvious but i do like a waterproof argument and you could create one from this article. its not as if the netherlands have drug wars where being a policeman is a death sentence in its self such as in mexico nor do drug gangs and cartels control daily life for massive numbers of citizens nor does it suit them to turn young dissafected individuals into users in order to force them to traffic, and why should a broke, penniless individual from a ghetto in singapor fear the death penalty when one hangs over their head anyway. and you could say “learn to spell” but that would be pedantic.

  14. oxoc says:

    tru dat !

  15. Jim says:

    Some comments here rely on the assumption that drugs are bad and that distribution of drugs needs to be done in an illegal manner. Legalization of drugs would make drug use much safer, since the government can regulate the quality and purity of drugs and they can be mass-produced, rather than smuggled in from other countries. Casual drug users can be very successful people (until they’re caught, which has put the careers of many successful people on hold). Obviously, regular drug use is not a good thing, and yes, it does have the potential to ruin lives or end them prematurely. However, regular alcohol use has that same potential, as does regular use of tobacco (and, in fact, people are more likely to harm others under the influence of alcohol than under the influence of marijuana), and those are both legal.

    However, in order to really solve the world’s drug problem, we really have to get rid of the whole war mentality, especially in the US.

  16. wm97 says:

    Have your Mom read the following items:

    The short history of the marijuana laws at http://druglibrary.org/schaffer/History/whiteb1.htm This was written by the law professor who did the history of the laws for Nixon’s US National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, the largest study of the drug problem ever done. It is funny and not what you expected.

    Among other things, one guy testified in court, under oath, that marijuana would make your fangs grow six inches long and drip with blood. He also said that, when he tried it, it turned him into a bat. He was the only “expert” in the US who thought marijuana should be illegal, so he was appointed US Official Expert on marijuana, where he served for 25 years.

    Licit and Illicit Drugs, by the Editors of Consumer Reports at http://druglibrary.org/schaffer/Library/studies/cu/cumenu.htm This is the best overall review of the drug problem ever written. If you take a college course in drug policy, this will likely be required reading. It gives a good summary of what you would learn if you read all the other major reports on the subject. You will find surprises on every page.

    The Drug Hang-Up at http://druglibrary.org/special/king/dhu/dhumenu.htm is another good, entertaining history of the subject. It was written by a former president of the American Bar Association who formed a committee with the American Medical Association to study the drug problem. He soon found out that questioning US drug policy is not something the government likes. It has a number of entertaining stories about how we got to where we are.

    If your Mom is really studious, she can find the full text of every major government commission report on drug policy from around the world over the last 100 years at http://druglibrary.org/schaffer under Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy. They all say fundamentally the same thing. They all say that drug prohibition does more harm than good.

    I recommend that people read the history to understand it. The drug laws were absolute lunacy, passed by lunatics, from the very beginning. People like your Mom assume that we have these laws, therefore the laws must be there for a good reason. It is a natural assumption, but completely wrong. The real reasons are so stupid that people laugh out loud when they hear them.

  17. wm97 says:

    Another response for your Mom:

    The number of people killed by drugs in the US in a typical year is as follows:

    Tobacco- 400,000
    Cheeseburgers (obesity) – 350,000
    Alcohol – 100,000
    All the illegal drugs combined, from all related causes – fewer than 20,000
    Cocaine – 5,000
    Heroin – 3,000
    Aspirin/Tylenol – 3,000
    Water overdoses (drinking too much, not drowning) – 100
    Marijuana – 0

    So the question is: Which drug problem do you think we ought to tackle first? How many people do you think we ought to kill to do it?

    People who say things like your Mom invariably are not aware of the real death stats. Also, for the next argument that she will make – the stats have always been that way, no matter which drugs were legal. It isn’t because alcohol and tobacco are legal and the others aren’t. See the Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs for some of the explanation why.

  18. nmitguy says:

    The U.S. government’s irrational fear of drugs, specifically marijuana is best exemplified in the fact that crops of hemp can’t even be grown in the U.S. This cousin of marijuana would require a person seeking to get high on hemp to smoke a joint the size of a car in order to produce the same effects from smoking a standard marijuana cigarette (yes, I am exaggerating a bit here, but the reality remains that hemp does not get you high, even if you have the most powerful set of iron lungs on earth). Not only that, but hemp has been proven to be be a much more viable crop than cotton and others and spawns a plethora of products from this one innocent plant. Instead, we import this product and have cut ourselves out of profits that could have been made for centuries. This, all because of our crooked politicians spinning the lies seen in “Reefer Madness” and other such propaganda tools used by our government to completely distort the facts. And let’s not forget the chicken-little populace that believes everything that authority figures tell them without even so much as a glimmer of independent thought on their part. Sad really.

  19. Sol says:

    Hi, I really liked your article, the facts are stated clearly and in a tone that doesn’t convey aggression, and I think that’s just what this particular debate needs. May I translate this into Spanish? there are a few people I’d like to show this to but they don’t speak English.

  20. scotty says:

    The War on Some Drugs will NEVER end. It is big business now. Many of the state prisons are no longer run by the states, but by private companies under contract. You also have huge numbers of correctional officers, enforcement officers, lawyers, judges, ICE, DEA, etc. And their unions, and the companies that arm them. This all adds up to a huge lobby that will do anything to keep the druggies rolling into the legal system so they can retire knowing they did the people’s good work.

  21. Jessie says:

    Whenever someone uses the word “druggies” I always think: well, there’s a hipster in the know. That smart alec remark aside, Scott, I agree 100% with your comment. I was pleasantly surprised to learn of group called L.E.A.P. which stands for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. I am pretty sure it is not a trap, and I encourage people to look into their message.

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