DRCNet Library | Schaffer Library

The Psychedelic Library | Book Reviews

  Drug War Politics—"The Price of Denial"

    Eva Bertram, Morris Blachman, Kenneth Sharpe and Peter Andreas
      Univ. of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles ISBN 0-0520-20598-7

        A Review by Bill D'Amico

This book hit the drug policy section at Powell's the same week as "Smoke and Mirrors". Both books depict the folly of the War on Drugs. But where S&M outraged and incensed me as I read it, DWP informed. It has a much less strident tone, and hence should be more accessible to mainstreamers than S&M.
    DWP is organized in three main sections, dealing with the state of the current policy landscape (titled "Confronting Denial"), How we got here ("Paradigms, Power, and the Politics of Denial") and where to go from here ("Public Health and the Struggle for Reform").
    In the first section the authors point out how the strategies presently are fatally flawed, then go on to look at collateral damage done in the course of implementing these strategies. Here is a sample snippet from a subsection entitled Deepening Race and Class Divisions:

"Carrying out a war against supply in the inner city creates a powerful vacuum pump that draws the poor and minority citizens into the lucrative trade itself—and then into the criminal justice system. The pattern is rooted in the deteriorating social conditions.... "The economic attraction of drug dealing for inner city residents is not surprising. The causal link between decaying conditions in the inner cities and increased drug abuse, however, is neither direct nor mechanistic. It is the product of a complex relationship long observed by substance-abuse counselors across lines of race and class: alcohol and drug abuse discriminate, seeking out and settling in homes and communities already weakened by family instability, financial insecurity and hopelessness."

    The second section of the book begins with a wonderful quote from Harper's :
"The war against drugs provides them [politicians] with something to say that offends nobody, requires them to do nothing difficult, and allows them to postpone, perhaps indefinitely, the more urgent and specific questions about the state of the nation's schools, housing, employment opportunities for young black men—i.e., the condition to which drug addiction is a symptom, not a cause. They remain safe in the knowledge that they might as well be denouncing Satan or the rain, and so they can direct the voices of prerecorded blame at metaphors and apparitions... The war on drugs thus becomes the perfect war for people who would rather not fight a war, a war in which the politicians who stand so fearlessly on the side of the good, the true and the beautiful need do nothing else but strike noble poses as protectors of the people and defenders of the public trust".

    Chapters in this section examine "the Punitive Paradigm" both from 1900-1930 and from 1930-1980. Then on to "Presidential Drug Wars and the Narco-Enforcement Complex" and "Congress, the Electorate and the Logic of Escalation". Finally they end with "the Punitive Paradigm Revisited". Here's a passage from the latter chapter:
"the willingness to deny harms caused by the strategy's answer to addiction and crime is nothing new. In 1969 Dr. Stanley Yolles, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, testified against mandatory minimum sentences for addicts before a subcommittee of the House Select Committee on Crime:
    This type of law has no place in a system devised to control an illness. It has no place being used for individuals who are addicted to drugs.
    This type of law angers us as doctors, because it should not apply to people who are sick. It destroys hope on the part of the person sentenced—hope of help, hope for starting a fresh life. It's totally contradictory to the whole concept of medicine. A prison experience is often psychologically shattering...He may for the first time in his life learn criminal ways. Such mandatory sentences destroy the prospects for rehabilitation".
    The response of Rep. Albert Watson (R-S Carolina) demonstrated how such arguments are deflected and twisted by the paradigm's drug-crime link: "Dr. Yolle's views are an affront to every decent, law-abiding citizen in America. At a time when we are on the verge of a narcotics crisis, a supposedly responsible Federal official comes along with the incredibly ridiculous idea of dropping mandatory jail sentences for those who push dope".

    The final section of the book deals with solutions. Legalization is discussed and ultimately dismissed as lacking in how it handles problems of drug abuse.
"Despite the legalizers' powerful critique of the harms done by the drug war and despite the deep roots of principles such as individual autonomy and free enterprise in American culture, this failure to offer guidance on the real problems of drug abuse and addiction makes many people leery of embracing legalization. Their concerns are exacerbated by the fact that legalization is likely to increase levels of drug use. Because some new users would become drug dependent, abuse and addiction would increase in turn. How great the increase would be is a contested question and depends in part on how tightly legal sales would be regulated. But the underlying principles and values of the paradigm—individual responsibility for drug use and its consequences—offer no counsel regarding the appropriate bounds of public responsibility for regulating sales or funding treatment, prevention, or harm reduction schemes."

    The authors suggest that a public health approach is better suited for getting drug related harms to decrease, and introduce the concept in the same chapter as they look at legalization, they go on to a full chapter on what a possible public health approach could look like. As part of this they look at the history of public health movement in getting such taken for granted things as public sewage treatment. After singing Public Health's praises they go on to look at prohibition/regulation of various substances.
"For example, the prohibition of nicotine theoretically would yield enormous health benefits for individuals and would lower many costs to society (insurance rate, government disability benefits, and health subsidies). But the creation of an enormous black market, the crime and the violence, and the impact on current addicts (who would be forced into the criminal underworld because of their addiction) would likely outweigh the benefits of prohibition and argue for other forms of regulation. Similarly, the prohibition of certain kinds of alcohol (200 proof moonshine, for example) makes sense: it is enforceable and it creates only a small black market. But this prohibition is workable because it is part of an alcohol regime that also allows—and regulates—more benign, less potent alcoholic beverages such as beer and wine. For those drugs that are regulated but not prohibited, difficult and contested question would remain about the actual mechanisms of regulation. For example, where should decisions about regulation be made—at the local, state or national level? And what kinds of regulations would discourage the progression toward more serious drug involvement (from no use to casual use to abuse to addiction) and instead encourage less frequent and less dangerous forms of drug taking?"

    They end with a chapter on the politics of reform. The authors seem unaware of the political potential of the internet, so they look at mainstream prevention and treatment advocates for most of the meat in this chapter.
"Despite their private misgivings about the drug war many officials in treatment and prevention associations thus not only have been reticent to publicly criticize the policy but also have mined the punitive drug-crime connection for much-needed funding. A top executive in a national treatment association explained:
    "You get resources to deal with the problem any way you can —and you get the resources for treatment with the connection with the crime problem. I wish it were not true... I wish the concern out there was the health problem... But if I can get more money for treatment by tying it to crime, then I should, because that money is badly needed to strengthen treatment facilities. The crime budget is not going away... We might as well get money from it. If treatment were not tied to crime fighting, there would be no money." "The head of a state organization of substance-abuse associations, a would-be critic of the punitive paradigm, put it more bluntly: "It's true. We're whores. But that's the only way we can get the money we need... If riding the crime wave is the way to get money, I'll do it. There are a lot of folks out there who are trying to make ends meet, pay their staffs, keep their programs going. If this is the way to do it, they'll do it".

    The final chapter concludes by looking at some reform successes, Needle Exchange programs, various judges and elected officials questioning the punitive paradigm. Three appendices show growth in drug use and law enforcement in quite striking relief. We've seen these graphs before I imagine, their source is ONDCP. Spending goes up, street price goes down, (except for marijuana), emergency room episodes go up. Estimated number of casual users goes down, estimated number of hard core users goes up.
    I can recommend this book to all and sundry reform minded people, as well as those that are on the fence, as perhaps Mr. Matthews is.
    The book is heavily annotated and a comprehensive bibliography follows the appendices.

Send e-mail to The Psychedelic Library:    psychedelic@wanadoo.fr

DRCNet Library | Schaffer Library

The Psychedelic Library | Book Reviews