What’s the real goal of ending the drug war?

By Slyvia Longmire
Mexico’s Drug War

I just finished watching another episode of “Drugs, Inc.” on the National Geographic Channel, a show that explores the illegal drug trade through interviews with manufacturers, dealers, and users. This week’s episode was called “Pill Nation,” and focused on the American obsession with legal prescription drugs – particularly powerful opiates, like oxycodone.

Most disturbing to me was the segment on Tiffany, a mother-to-be who had been addicted to OxyContin for four years, and now her unborn baby was also addicted. I watched after the baby was born as the nurses had to put morphine in her two week-old baby’s formula bottle to prevent him from withdrawal-induced seizures. I learned about “pill mills” in my home state of Florida where corrupt doctors in pain clinics freely prescribe strong pain meds to pretty much anyone who asks for them – for a price, of course. I also learned that almost twice as many Americans overdose from legal, regulated, and controlled drugs than all illegal drugs combined.

In this episode, and particularly in another one about meth, it became clear to me that people who choose to use any mind-altering substance do so for reasons that go far beyond their legality or source, or any pain or violence their acquisition might cause. The meth users who were interviewed were living in a hovel, the wife prostituting herself and the husband occasionally stealing so they could buy the next day’s fix. Proponents of legalization might offer that if methamphetamine were legal, regulated and controlled, these two individuals wouldn’t have to resort to these extreme measures. After watching these two, as well as heroin, oxycodone, and other addicts, it was clear to me that America’s drug problem isn’t the drugs; it’s America.

I mean this in the context that addicts will use mind-altering substances to the detriment of their health, their families, their jobs, their homes, and even their unborn children. Why do these people run themselves into the ground like this, just for a fix? Based on my own research, the answer is complex and unique to each individual. But I can see the desperation in the faces of these users for the escape their drug of choice provides. And the primal need to fulfill that, whether drugs are legal, illegal, or prescribed.

This brings me to my somewhat philosophical question, what’s the ultimate goal of ending the drug war? Is it to end the violence brought about by the black market? Is it the Libertarian pursuit of the end of drug prohibition on principle? Is it to try to keep unborn children from becoming addicted to drugs before birth, or to keep women from selling their bodies to pay high drug prices?

Obviously the answer is different for different people. I just think it’s important to remember that our drug demand is so incredibly high in America due to complex societal reasons, and that’s not something that can be fixed by legalizing drugs or ending the drug war. People with deep emotional scars or few prospects in life will seek to dull the pain no matter how high or low the financial or legal cost. For those of you who are parents, can you imagine being such a slave to your pill addiction that you won’t even willingly spare your unborn child from it?

So now I’m wondering, if the drug war were to end tomorrow and all drugs were legalized, is that enough of a victory, knowing that we’ve only addressed the symptoms and not the disease? Would ours be a better society if people had the freedom to buy drugs cheaply and use them freely without fear of arrest? Proponents of legalization believe overdoses would drop because the content of drugs – which is unpredictable at best, deadly at worst – would be strictly regulated and dosed. But seeing how many Americans are hooked on and dying from legal drugs that meet these criteria kind of throws that argument out the window for me.

Don’t get me wrong; ending the drug war one way or another is imperative. But have we really looked beyond that? Should that be the goal, or is it too pie-in-the-sky to fix the American desire for escapism through mind-altering substances? This isn’t an argument for or against legalization, as I’m trying to go deeper than that. I’m just seeing that people who use drugs and become addicted to them don’t see much farther beyond how they’re going to get their next fix, and no piece of legislation or peace negotiation is going to fix that.

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