Drug abuse and addiction are medical problems, not criminal ones
If you want to cure a disease, the last thing you should do is criminalize it. You don’t stop diabetes by throwing the diabetic in jail. Drug addiction is a disease. Do the math.
I live in New York City and the latest scourge that we’ve been introduced to through incessant media blasts is K2 or Spice. What’s that, you ask? The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) notes that both reference a wide variety of herbal potions and mixtures that produce a range of experiences similar to marijuana and cannabinoids and that are marketed as "safe," legal alternatives to those drugs.
I will spare you a tutorial on the ravages of K2 but, suffice it to say, anyone with two neurons to rub together – and who’d like to hang on to said neurons – should stay clear of this horrid stuff.
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So, how are local officials and the media handling the problem? Per usual. Television news stations play scores of horrid video pieces showing cases of addled K2 partakers slobbering and drooling and acting mindless as they in fact are. Local authorities are clamoring for a get-tough approach and every politician for miles around is stampeding to the nearest available mic to let their thoughts be known as to how horrible and dangerous this latest scourge is and how we’ve got to get tough. Cops, prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges, probation officers, jailers and miscellaneous court personnel wring their hands in delight, knowing that this latest plague will ensure that their services will once again be guaranteed. Whoever said crime doesn’t pay never worked in the criminal justice system.
But the glaring omission is education. Nowhere in the panoply of reactions and presentations of the problem does anyone for a moment even begin to suggest a full-scale education and treatment attack or tack. It’s not in anyone’s quiver or on any agenda to dedicate any time explaining and training and educating the public on how this seemingly harmless substance is anything but.
Anything but harmless. One of the selling points of K2, other than its intoxicating potential, is the fact that it’s legal and available and apparently innocuous and even anodyne. And speaking of actual spice, nutmeg is lovely and it also contains trimyristin, a powerful hallucinogen. And if synthesized in the right amount and formulation, the effects can be devastating. But no one would dare consider outlawing nutmeg but instead would inform the public accordingly. We know that with any epidemic or public health issue, it’s critical to illuminate and inform. During the incipient periods of the AIDS crisis, education made a drastic difference. And, no, I’m not comparing HIV transmissibility modalities with drug addiction, I’m talking knowledge. Treat a medical problem like a medical problem. Hospitals not prisons.
Television news networks and stations love to portray themselves as beloved and critical parts of the community, integral participants in the markets they serve. I submit that if they devoted portions of television real estate to explaining and instructing as to the horrors of K2 and forego at least temporarily the usual Hamburger Helper video filler, the impact would be dramatic.
Law enforcement and first responders. Now, this may seem heretical to our brave badged men and women, but it is not beyond the realm of reason to have information, data, literature, name it, at their disposal and presented to the obviously intoxicated before handcuffs are dispatched. They must coordinate efforts with first responders including EMS and paramedics whom they often meet at crime scenes and education programs and training must be given to police to explain the psychoactive properties that inspire belligerence and test the limits of compassion.
The libertarian tack. I have long advocated the legalization, decriminalization and “medicalization” (as former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke suggested) of all controlled substances since I was a prosecutor actively participating in seeking and securing the incarceration of otherwise law-abiding citizens merely for the possession of certain substances whose sole attributes were that they rendered their users high, not necessarily dead, but merely intoxicated, no matter the degree or duration. I shan’t explicate my beliefs further but merely refer to such as a reminder that there exists today a number of valid arguments that support the notion that the private possession and use of substances that harm no one save the user should not be subject to criminal sanction and penalty. ‘Nuff said.
Thanks to the groundbreaking work of Dr. Nora Volkow of NIDA, the world’s research now points to the fact that drug addiction is a disease of the human brain. Through the use of imaging to map the toxic effects of drugs on the brain, Volkow and her colleagues have documented changes in dopamine systems as well as functionality of frontal brain areas involved in motivation, pleasure, drive and judgment.
Just think about that. If it can be conclusively shown – and I respectfully submit it has – that drug addiction and certain usage behaviors are not subject to control or volition, how can criminal penalties lie? How can someone be seized, arrested, charged, tried, convicted and incarcerated over something they couldn’t control and that was medical in nature? Equity demands that the realization be appreciated that criminal penalties simply can’t and don’t work. Criminal law has long established doctrines of insanity and the like that excuse culpability when it can be proved that a defendant was unable to tell the difference between right and wrong and conform accordingly. That’s the very definition of addiction!
As has become axiomatic, the ACLU reports that despite being a mere 5 percent of the world’s population, the US has more than 20 percent of the world’s prison population, thus making us the world’s largest jailer. As Abraham Maslow reminds us, if the only tool you have is a hammer it’s easy to treat everything as if it were a nail. And when you live in a world with a burgeoning prison-industrial complex with incarceration as the answer to everything, with our concomitant wars on crime and drugs, is it any wonder that the prison cell is opted for versus the hospital bed?
Lionel is an Emmy Award winning lawyer, legal analyst and news decoder.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.