Comments from The Outpost

Drug Policy - How Long Will We Ignore It's Failure?

14 March 1997

by Dan Murphy

Good evening.

Hardly a week goes by but what there isn't some moment in the great drug war that begs for comment -- some new and more absurd official pronouncement, some example of collateral damage. Alas, I can't take note of every such event that deserves it or we'd never talk about anything else. A couple of recent stories can't be ignored however, as they illustrate new facets of how the government's anti-drug efforts are failing.

The first event of note is the overdoses suffered by more than a dozen young teenagers at a Boys and Girls Club in Woburn. There may have been others, but 14 youths had to be taken to this hospital and most were in critical condition for a day or more. Hospital officials described them as "lucky to be alive".

And what was the monstrous substance that produced these terrible effects? Crack? Heroin? LSD? Or maybe that evil and dangerous marijuana? No, not hardly. If marijuana had been involved, there would have been no medical crises, no hospital wards filled with teenagers in critical condition, no roomful of kids "dropping like flies" as one police officer put it. If marijuana had been the drug involved, the most dangerous threat would have been the harmful but artificial side-effects imposed by law enforcement and penalization.

In fact, the drugs that wrecked this havoc were LEGAL, over-the-counter or prescription drugs easily obtained. These were pills passed around like candy and ingested by the dozens by kids aged 13-16 at a club dance organized by adults supposedly to keep kids out of trouble.

I have to be amazed at the lack of judgment reflected by the kids in this case. How can it be that people, even young ones, of average mental competence have no more sense than to wolf down dozens of pellets of random and unknown substances? Even wolves know better than that. I'm not sure what kind of messages these kids have been hearing, but clearly there are some serious flaws in their education if they don't have as much sense as a dog about what to eat.

This event speaks volumes about the effective of "the message" in reaching teens and young people. You know about "the message"; we hear about it constantly. We can't allow medical use of marijuana, even for terminal patients, because of "the message" it sends to teenagers. Every drug czar we've had has pretty much toed this line -- we can't admit of any ambivalence or question about the absolute badness of drugs because it would send the wrong message. Never mind that the truth might have to be twisted or excluded altogether.

Clearly, drug czars and other official powers-that-be have a grossly exaggerated idea of the effectiveness of their message. They actually seem to think someone somewhere might be paying attention. The events in Woburn provide strong evidence to the contrary, or at least to the abject failure of "the message" to have even the most minimal positive effect.

It may just be that "the message" is so full of hypocrisy, condescension, and outright lies that even a 7 years old just filters it all out. Keep in mind, by the way, that the typical 7 year old, not to mention the typical 12 or 14-years old, has watched thousands of hours of television and heard tens of thousands of commercials and so learned early on to disregard most of the messages, no matter how urgent or impassioned.

This, finally, is a real problem. There are some real messages about drugs and about the basic care and feeding of one's own body that kids really do need to hear and learn growing up, but obviously the messages that they are getting are so lacking in credibility that the kernels of truth get thrown out along with the gallons of garbage. The tragic result is then the kind of thing that happened in Woburn, not to mention the thousands of lives that really are destroyed by serious drug abuse.

Until the message begins to have a lot more credibility, it's going to remain what it is today -- not just ineffectual, but probably counter-productive. It's a case of crying wolf way too many times. Everyone figures out that some of the drugs hyped as dangerous aren't dangerous at all, so the truth of what actually is dangerous gets lost in the noise.

This is just one in a long list of ways in which present drug policies are not working and are causing harm, not good. And it remains the tragedy of the '90s that government policy makers from the president on down remain blind to these failures. This point was vividly illustrated a few weeks ago in a question put to present drug czar retired general Barry McCaffrey in an interview heard on No Censorship Radio here on WMBR. The question was, basically, when will the war on drugs be won, and at what additional cost? How many more people need to be put in jail before the war is won?

The general's answer was, "I don't know", and apparently he doesn't think he needs to know. He responded as if the question itself was coming from a hostile quarter. That it may have been, but it's still a proper question. As a military man, the general would presumably not think it improper to be asked how many men it would take to capture a certain village and how many of them would be killed or wounded in the process. Why, then, is a parallel question about the drug war not considered to be of essential importance?

We should know that it's a very bad idea to pursue a war when we don't know how long its going to take, how many people will be lost in the process, and what even constitutes winning. We should know that not only as as a rational conclusion but also from the experience of Viet Nam in the 1970's. We still seem to remember it when it comes to foreign military ventures involving ground troops, but it's a lesson we're not yet applying to the war on drugs.

If we're going to be fighting this war, then we should be insisting every day that those in charge of it start telling us, HOW MANY? -- how many more will be jailed or die in the streets as this policy is pursued? HOW MUCH? -- how much of our national resources and energy will be poured into this sinkhole? WHAT? -- what is the objective of this war? Are we fighting it to win, and what does winning mean? And HOW LONG? -- how long must we fight to win, or to learn that it's unwinnable and bring the troops home?

For this week, that's the view from the Outpost. For WMBR, this is Dan Murphy.

Back to The Outpost.

Feedback to The Outpost.