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Rituals of Atonement
The Old Testament describes a ritual of atonement. The Jews call it Yom Kippur. The ceremony features a luckless goat, chosen by lot, on whom the priests symbolically place the sins of the community. The priests then toss the “goat of removal,” or scapegoat, over a cliff to his death. Thus are the nation’s iniquities atoned. Thus are things put right with The Almighty.
The ancient Greeks used human scapegoats. The righteous citizens stoned the “pharmakos” to death. In so doing they believed they cleansed their community of sin. It is from this barbarous ceremony of healing that we derive the word “pharmacy.”
Our society has developed its own brutal ritual of atonement, the War on Drugs. It involves casting out and persecuting a tiny subclass of our own whose problems before the WOD were private, harmless to others and, ironically, easily solved at any pharmacy.
Drug users and addicts are perfect modern scapegoats. They are a politically and socially insignificant minority. Their numbers include many successful and influential individuals but even the powerful dare not protest. This defenseless and indefensible little group is a godsend for grandstanding politicians. From the moment drugs were banned, any politician who found himself outflanked on the right could become a champion of law and order by turning a righteous wrath on drug users. Fortunately for political demagogues, making drugs illegal caused a dramatic increase in crime, both by definition, and in crimes of property and violence associated with the subsequent black market.
Congress first tried to control opiates in 1914 with the Harrison Act. Addicts in those days were mostly middle class, productive citizens, generally of two types. The first was a white, middle class female, usually living on a farm. She was hooked on patent medicines which contained up to 50% morphine and carried no warning labels. The second was a long-term patient who had become dependent on opiate pain killers while undergoing treatment.
Addicts at the time could go to any pharmacy and buy the morphine, heroin or laudanum necessary to maintain their addiction for no more than the cost of a tobacco habit. They did so, not to get high, but to avoid the horrors of withdrawal.
Addiction to opium does not incline its victims toward crime or violence. Addicts with an affordable, reliable supply of drugs are not more likely to be thieves or murderers than anyone else. Many successful individuals have been lifelong addicts. Among the most accomplished is William Stewart Halstead, a brilliant surgeon and physician, and one of the founders of Johns Hopkins University.
Mr. Halstead injected 180 milligrams of morphine daily for over 40 years. His colleagues were unaware of his habit. Dr. Halstead’s addiction had no effect on his work or his private life. His surgical technique was admired as particularly deft. Had Dr. Halstead had to maintain such and addiction in modern America, he would have been a hopeless street junkie, not a famous surgeon.
The only way to turn a productive, middle class morphine addict into a “dope fiend” is to cut off the legal supply of morphine. Congress did that with the Harrison Act. It was a masterpiece of unintended consequences.
So why, you might ask, is O’Boyle slogging around in the sticky goo of drug prohibition history rather than urging us to arm our toddlers? Let me tell you.
I was holed up as usual in my little office. I had just finished an article in this month’s Second Amendment Hotties on how to load 45 caliber semi-auto magazines without ruining your manicure. Suddenly I stumbled across a short report of a recent decision by the usually loopy-liberal Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Ninth Circuit is the most liberal and most often reversed pack of robes in the country. But in this particular case they made an uncharacteristically good decision based on a legal concept so long ignored that it is almost quaint ― limited federal jurisdiction.
In Raich v. Ashcroft the Court ruled the federal government does not have the constitutional authority to regulate or forbid the use of medical marijuana that does not involve interstate commerce. (The decision raises interesting questions about everything from the income tax to federal toilet tank regulations, but we’ll leave that for later.) If the Supreme Court confirms in an appeal, legal medical marijuana use in individual states will be safe from federal prosecution in all 50 states. Otherwise only those in the Ninth Circuit (the west coast mostly) will be left in peace.
This decision is remarkable because it readdresses an issue that first came up when the Harrison Act was passed. Congress knew that intrastate drug prohibition stood on shaky constitutional ground. That’s why they disguised it as a tax. They did the same with the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. Judges treated it as a tax and violations as tax evasion.
The first case reached the Supreme Court in 1916. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote the opinion for the court trashing the government’s case for lack of federal jurisdiction. The defendant, a doctor who had prescribed morphine for an addict, was released as were many other addicts, doctors and druggists who had been imprisoned.
But the Treasury Department wasn’t going to let a little thing like the Supreme Law of the Land interfere with their impossible mission to wipe out drug addiction. They agitated in Congress for more laws. They controlled the medical profession with bullying and intimidation. In the next few years Treasury indicted over 35,000 people but didn’t bring any of them to trial. Treasury agents terrorized doctors and pharmacists, using fear to keep the medical profession in line without risking a setback in the courts.
Eventually they found a doctor who was so wildly irresponsible that even Justice Holmes recognized him for the dope peddler that he was. His conviction was upheld by the Supremes. The rest is history.
When the Harrison Act became law there were what many considered a high number of morphine addicts relative to our population. The best estimates put the total around 250,000 in a population of around 75 million. That’s about 3 addicts per thousand Americans. Today, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, there are between 750,000 and 1,000,000 addicts in the United States. That’s still about 3 addicts per thousand Americans.
Eighty years of drug prohibition has done nothing to reduce addiction. But that is not to say that it hasn’t had any consequences, nearly all of them unintended ― nearly all of them bad.
Every other measure of social pathology has skyrocketed with our increasing efforts to suppress drug consumption. The murder rate is five times higher. The murder rate among young men of drug consuming age, 18 to 30, is over ten times higher. Theft, assault, drug related fatalities and police corruption are all many times worse than they were when drugs were legal.
Today one in 75 American men is in prison. One in every four black men is either in prison or under the supervision of the penal system. Here in the Land of the Free we lead the world in the number of prisoners and in the rate of imprisonment, yet we have the same number of addicts as we did before we began locking them up.
The wreckage caused by the War on Drugs gives us more to atone for than any damage that drugs ever caused. The recent decision by the Ninth Circuit Court is a welcome move toward a sane rethinking of our failed drug prohibition policies, and a good first step toward ending the scapegoating of a sad minority whose problems need medical, not criminal solutions.