Is the War on Drugs worth fighting?

Gary Abernathy Civitas Media

April 24, 2014

Last week, state health officials reported that a record number of Ohioans died from heroin overdoses in 2012, the latest year with complete statewide statistics, and that fatal drug overdoses of all kinds hit a record of 1,272, up from 1,154 the year before.

The report was only focused on accidental fatal overdoses, and not drug usage in general. As Sheriff Richard Warner told The Times-Gazette for our page one story on the subject on Saturday, a lot of would-be overdoses in Highland County are being prevented by new drugs that almost miraculously bring overdose victims (I hesitate to call self-administered drug abusers “victims”) back to life. The general public doesn’t hear about most of those cases, or even most of the overdose deaths.

A few years ago, Ohio was plagued by “pill mills,” legal clinics predominantly in southern Ohio where unscrupulous doctors made a fortune basically handing out oxycodone to anyone who lined up complaining about any kind of pain, whether proven or not.

The state legislature eventually cracked down on the practice, and most of the pill mills have closed in the last three or four years – at least in Ohio. Many of them simply moved across the river into West Virginia or Kentucky and reopened.

But the main result of the crackdown on pill mills was another basic example of the law of supply and demand, and the lesson of market forces. Where there is a demand, there will be a supply. When the pill mills were banished, the meth and heroin trade picked up the pace to fill the void. Heroin is comprised of the same basic ingredients as prescribed painkillers.

When I worked for the U.S. Senate, I attended countless meetings with drug abuse task forces, law enforcement officials and doctors across southern Ohio. The sheriff and police departments generally complained about the lack of funding and sufficient personnel to keep up with the expanding drug trade. The doctors complained that legislators were interfering with their ability to properly treat patients.

Most of the doctors I met with were not of the pill mill variety. They were honest, caring doctors who worked in clinics at the larger hospitals across the region and who were in the business of treating patients with chronic illnesses or injuries and who were living their lives with constant, serious levels of pain.

They carefully monitored their patients and cared for them with a controlled regimen of pain medications. They were distressed that the crackdown on prescribing oxycodone and other such painkillers was interfering with their ability to provide patients with the relief they needed.

In court, we often hear defendants describe how they first became addicted to drugs because of an injury or illness, and their treatment quickly turned to addiction, which led them to procure additional pain relief in whatever way possible. These are sad cases.

But law enforcement personnel will tell you that these cases do not account for the majority of drug abusers. Most drug abusers are involved in the drug trade because they have found that they can make money dealing drugs, or they simply enjoy the high they receive from using them.

As Anneka Collins, the county prosecutor, pointed out last week, drug abuse is not a victimless crime. Ninety percent of all cases that come through the courthouse are drug-related in one way or another. Home break-ins, theft, and a lot of violent crime occur either under the influence of drugs or because abusers are seeking property to turn into cash to use to purchase drugs.

We have witnessed decades of what was declared to be the War on Drugs. By all measures, it is a war we have consistently lost, and that is because you cannot legislate morality. The sickness that leads to most drug abuse is not physical in nature; it is a sickness of the soul. No legislation can be effective against a diseased soul.

Today’s entertainment media will not acknowledge that its wink-wink attitude toward drug abuse deters the kind of societal outrage necessary for a real war to be declared and carried out against this epidemic. A recent Saturday Night Live episode, for example, was hosted by actor and comedian Seth Rogan, whose persona is largely centered around his love of smoking marijuana. Several skits during the program made fun of drug issues, ranging from ridiculing the DARE program to glorifying drug dealers. In this world view, drug buyers and sellers are simply happy-go-lucky people enjoying drugs for “recreational use.”

One suspects from much evidence (fatal overdoses and endless arrests) that most Hollywood and other entertainment creative types are no strangers to the kind of drugs they present to the world through television and movies as fun and harmless. This will not change.

So if the war on drugs is a failure, do we wave the white flag of surrender? Most people who adopt that position change their minds when the dealer lives next door, and they and their children are forced to breathe the odor of meth being cooked, with unsavory characters pulling in and out of the driveway at all hours of the day and night.

Mayor Drew Hastings’ devotion to forcing property owners in Hillsboro to clean up abandoned and rundown houses and buildings is in large part based on his recognition that these are the havens of drug abusers, and it is commendable that city council finally passed an ordinance empowering the city to pressure owners to clean up the messes.

Without pursuing an actual war in the traditional sense, which would help, or seeing a dramatic about-face in how the media portrays drug dealing, which won’t happen, the drug war will never be won in the sense of declaring victory. But it should still be fought, and dealers and users should be taken off the street whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Even if you know that cockroaches infest your house in deep, dark, unseen places, you’re still going to step on the ones that boldly walk across your floor in broad daylight. That may be all we are really accomplishing in our War on Drugs, but it is no reason to stop doing at least that much.


Gary Abernathy can be reached at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.