Paranoia Will Destroy You

We are entering a new moment of drug-paranoia. Even as American attitudes on drugs are changing and becoming more tolerant – as evidenced by multiple referenda on pot legalization – we are hearing more and more stories claiming a crisis on the streets. New York Police Commissioner William Bratten claimed in March that marijuana sales were to blame for a small increase in the city’s murder rate through the first two months of the year – and that the problem is worse than in the 1990s when there were six to seven times the number of murders.

Then there is the supposed heroin epidemic. Heroin use – and the number of deaths from the drug – is on the rise. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says that about 669,000 people in the United States used heroin in 2012 (the last year for which they had statistics). That number has been growing annually since 2006 – but remains relatively small (just 0.2% of the US population).

The numbers are of concern – drug addiction is an awful, soul-crushing phenomenon – but they do not seem to imply an epidemic. And they don’t justify the continuation of the punitive approach we have taken for a century to dealing with the problem.

After all, there are other numbers with which we should be concerned, as well: 1.5 million people arrested on drug charges nationally ( cms/Crime#Data), with most being charged with lower-level offenses; half of the approximately 90,000 housed in federal prisons and about one-sixth of the 1.2 million incarcerated at the state and local level are there on drug charges.

Drug users in the United States spend about a billion dollars annually, according to, which also estimates federal spending on the drug war at about $27 billion annually, not including state and local law enforcement costs. About 40% of federal spending is on treatment. And this figure does not account for the money spent on military hardware that is becoming more and more prevalent among law enforcement.

The costs of all of this go far beyond addictions and dollars. The war on drugs has altered the fabric of our democracy. The courts have repeatedly ruled against third- and fourth-amendment protections – the ones designed to protect the sanctity of our homes and our privacy – citing the impending danger around every corner. Police have been given wide latitude in most cases. As the Rutherford Institute points out, the Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that police, if they have a reasonable belief that evidence might be destroyed, can enter a home without a warrant or without knocking. Earlier decisions have essentially granted police cart blanche – evidence obtained via a faulty warrant, for instance, can be used as evidence as long as “officers (acted) objectively and in good faith.”

“Police raids of American homes have greatly increased,” Rutherford points out. “Often the police even fail to knock and announce their presence before breaking down doors. In 2006, the US Supreme Court ruled that evidence found by police officers who enter a home to execute a search warrant without first following the requirement to ‘knock and announce’ can be used at trial, despite that constitutional violation.”

The militarized police departments we have grown used to are not just a product of post-9/11 era. The mindset goes back much farther – to Reagan and the beginnings of the war on drugs. (See my essay in Dinosaur magazine (

Ultimately, prohibition has been a failure. Police crackdowns on drug sales and drug use tend to result in a temporary shift in location, as officers chase users and sellers to different corners and sometimes to different communities. And the costs associated with prohibition could do more good elsewhere – not just by providing more widespread access to treatment, but by creating alternatives to drug use and drug sales.

As Johann Hari points out, addiction is about more than chemicals. The “war on drugs,” he told Democracy Now! in February, “is built on the idea that chemicals cause addiction, and we need to physically eradicate the chemicals from the United States.” That thinking, he said, may not be right – based on studies he reviewed for his book Chasing the Scream – and that the “driver” of addiction very well may be “isolation, pain and distress.”

If that is true, as he says, then it is time we look to new approaches – not to eradicate drug or alcohol use, but to change the conditions that lead use to become abuse.

It is time we declare the drug war over and admit that we’ve lost.

Hank Kalet is a poet and journalist in New Jersey. Email; blog,

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2015

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