Sign the Resolution for a Federal Commission on Drug Policy
Contents | Feedback | Search | DRCNet Home Page | Join DRCNet
DRCNet Library | Schaffer Library | Information for Drug Policy Reform Activists
by Clifford A. Schaffer
This is one of my typical speeches
First, I would like to inform everyone that the real subject here today is not drug decriminalization, or legalization, or re-legalization, or anything like that, because we still don't know if we will ever do any of those things. What is certain is that, at the current rates of incarceration, we will build the largest prisons in the world. The issue is prison. It is not up to us to justify decriminalization. It is up to those who support the current policy to justify putting millions of people in prison behind a drug policy which everyone admits cannot work.
One of the reasons that I am here is because of my mother. I have heard many people say that the crusade against drugs is a moral issue. William Bennett, our first national Drug Czar, said that it is important to stamp out drugs because it is the moral thing to do. I will show you that there is nothing moral about it.
On April 20, 1992, my mother told me she wanted to die. She called me that evening and asked me if I would understand if she committed suicide. My mother is sixty-five years old and she looks and acts at least ten years younger than her age. She still works because she enjoys her job. Why then does she want to die?
A few years ago she had a minor operation on her ribs and, during the operation, some nerves were damaged. It wasn't anyone's fault, it is just one of the ordinary risks of surgery. It could happen to anyone. Now the nerves fire constantly, at near-maximum intensity. She says it feels as if someone is holding a blowtorch to her ribs -- twenty-four hours a day. She can no longer wear clothes which touch her skin. She can no longer walk in a warm spring rain because the pain of a single raindrop is too much to bear. Something as simple as a hug from her smallest granddaughter will make her fall to the floor in tears.
She has spent the last few years traveling across the United States to find a cure. The doctors have tried a long list of treatments including surgery, drugs, ointments, electricity, and many other things. None of them worked very well and many of them were dangerous. The best of them was a nerve block. The nerve block required my mother to lay on her stomach while the doctors injected anesthetic directly into the nerve causing the problem. The needle had to be placed precisely on the nerve so it usually had to be moved around for a few minutes to get just the right spot. It reached the limits of human pain. The pain was so great that her body rigidly locked up, with her senses overloaded. She could not scream, breathe, or even see.
On two occasions they punctured her lung with this procedure, and once they actually stopped her heart. To revive her, they gave her CPR, which means they had to pound on her ribs. When she awoke she screamed at them to kill her. She said that she was bitter for months because they had not let her die when they had the chance. She has since left written instructions that, if her heart ever stops again, she is not to be revived. Still, she said the nerve block is worth it, because it gives her relief for almost three days and, besides, there is always the chance that she will luck out and they will kill her again.
Only one treatment has ever worked to ease the pain. That treatment is morphine. Morphine does not make her into a drug addict. It does not make her into some kind of mindless zombie. It does not even make her high. It just allows her to live a relatively normal life, free from the pain in her side. When compared with the other available treatments, morphine is the cheapest, safest, and most effective treatment for her condition.
He doctors will not give her morphine, for two reasons. The first reason is that they are afraid she will become addicted. A study conducted at Johns Hopkins Medical School showed that the addiction rate for the medical use of morphine was less than one-half of one percent. Even when patients do become addicted, morphine addiction can be easily managed in a proper medical environment, so addiction is not a legitimate medical concern.
The second reason they will not prescribe morphine is that they are afraid of the drug police. They know that the Drug Enforcement Administration and the local police can seize their property and destroy their careers over a single questioned prescription, and the police do not even have to file criminal charges to do it. It not only can happen, it does happen. Last year, the Drug Enforcement Administration sent two doctors to prison for prescribing Tylenol 3. That is Tylenol with codeine. Tylenol 3 is a prescription drug in only two countries in the world, the United States and South Africa, and the United States is the only country which has ever sent a doctor to prison for prescribing this common medicine. There are many other cases where doctors have had their lives and careers ruined over equally trivial matters.
My mother has mixed emotions when I speak out about her problem. She says that she really does not want anyone's sympathy because, since she has had this problem, she has discovered that there are so many more people who are in worse condition than she is. Some people with AIDS get this same kind of condition all over their bodies. Every day of their lives is worse than any horror movie that you have ever seen. They can't get morphine either. Seven thousand five hundred people go blind from glaucoma every year because the best medicine - marijuana - is illegal. And the list goes on.
There are literally millions of people with chronic pain, cancer, AIDS, glaucoma, and other conditions for which the safest and most effective medicine is a drug which is now illegal. Hundreds of thousands of them violate the drug laws every day because they need these medicines to live.
On behalf of all of the families affected by AIDS, and cancer, and glaucoma, and a dozen other diseases, I am here to tell you that this drug policy is indecent and it must be stopped. There is nothing moral about a drug policy which makes sick people choose between prison and death.
Drug policy is a complicated issue and we will not have time today to resolve all of the points under discussion. In the past fifty years, however, there have been several occasions when major commissions have been formed specifically to study the evidence and the options for drug policy and to make recommendations. There have been both public and private commissions, domestic and foreign, performed by people of all political persuasions from liberals to conservative law-and-order Republicans, and people who aren't even on our political map. They all recommended decriminalization.
I would like to read to you some of the studies which have reached this conclusion:
The LaGuardia Committee Report, commissioned by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, written by the New York Academy of Medicine, and published by the City of New York in 1944.
The Baroness Wootton Report, published by the government of the United Kingdom in 1967.
The Report of the Canadian Government Commission of Inquiry into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs, published by the Canadian Government in 1969.
Dealing With Drug Abuse: A Report to the Ford Foundation, published by the Drug Abuse Survey Project in 1972.
The Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs, published by the Editors of Consumer Reports Magazine in 1972. This is a landmark study, a "must-read", used as a basic textbook at major universities.
The Report of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, commissioned by President Nixon, and published by the U.S. Federal Government in 1973.
The Facts About Drug Abuse, published by the United States Drug Abuse Council in 1980.
An Analysis of Marijuana Policy, published by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences in 1982.
The Report of the California State Research Advisory Panel, commissioned by the State of California, and published in 1990.
The recommendations in these reports were endorsed by (among others) the American Medical Association, the American Bar Association, The American Association for Public Health, the National Education Association, and the National Council of Churches.
I might also add that the last two reports of the National Commission on AIDS have also recommended that we adopt non-criminal approaches to drug abuse.
We may debate the details of the many issues of drug policy all day, but one basic fact is undeniable. When all of the issues and all of the evidence is considered, the overwhelming weight of the scholarly evidence on drug policy supports decriminalization.
The first question that we need to ask ourselves is: How did we get into this mess? Any study of the history of the drug laws shows that they were based on two primary factors; racism and ignorance.
You may have wondered why marijuana, heroin, and cocaine are illegal while other equally dangerous drugs such as tobacco and alcohol are legal, and even promoted by the Federal Government. The primary reason is that alcohol and tobacco were associated with white people while the other drugs were associated -- wrongly -- with people of color.
Opiates were first outlawed because of the fear that Chinese men were luring white women to their ruin in opium dens. Ruin was defined not as opium addiction, but as associating with Chinese men.
In the early years of this century, many of the major newspapers printed lurid articles about superhuman Negro Cocaine Fiends who would take large amounts of cocaine which would cause them to go on a violent sexual rampage and rape white women. Police departments across the nation switched from .32 caliber pistols to .38 caliber pistols because as one Police Chief stated, "Those cocaine niggers sure are hard to kill." Newspaper stories of the day told lurid tales of Jewish peddlers selling cocaine to poor southern blacks. There was also a movement to ban caffeine for the same reasons. There was no evidence to back up the myth of the Negro Cocaine Fiend simply because most black people did not have the money to buy cocaine. Any black man who did rape a white woman would have had to be suicidal because in 1905 there were 105 recorded lynchings of black men for unspecified offenses.
Marijuana was later outlawed largely as a repressive tool against Mexican laborers who were competing with American workers for jobs during the Depression.
Racism was one of the primary themes of the campaign against drugs until the campaigns for civil rights in the 1950's and 1960's made it unacceptable. At that point, the drug warriors turned to other myths to defend their cause. You have heard some of those myths today. It is important to remember that many of the myths you heard today were made up in the 1950's and 1960's when it began to be apparent that the old myths just wouldn't cut it any more. These laws never did have anything to do with public health and safety.
We next need to understand the facts on the issue. My first graph shows the number of deaths caused by drugs, both legal and illegal, in the United States in a typical year.
Tobacco kills about 390,000 people.
Alcohol kills about 80,000.
Sidestream smoke from tobacco kills about 50,000 people who don't even smoke.
Prescription drugs kill at least 10,000.
Cocaine kills about 2,500.
Heroin kills about 2,000.
Aspirin kills about 2,000
Marijuana kills 0. Even the DEA itself says that there has not been a recorded death due to marijuana in the history of the United States.
All of the illegal drugs combined killed about 4,500, or about one percent of the number killed by tobacco. Tobacco kills more people every year than all of the people killed by all of the illegal drugs in the Twentieth Century. More Colombians die from the effects of American tobacco than the number of Americans who die from Colombian cocaine. As you may know, tobacco is heavily subsidized and promoted by the United States Government. The US Government demands that other countries buy more American tobacco even while we threaten them with war for sending us their marijuana and cocaine.
Right now we have about 1.3 million people in prison. More than 600,000 of them are there for non-violent drug offenses. For every person who died from illegal drugs last year, one hundred and fifty people went to prison. Most of them were black men.
You may hear a good deal of take about the dangers of illegal drugs. First let me state that the medical evidence is very clear that, by any standard of measurement, alcohol and tobacco are substantially more dangerous to both the individual and to society than any of the illegal drugs. We have known this for at least twenty-five years. This is not to say that use of any drug is entirely safe. We could safely assume that almost anything we put into our bodies is going to have some health risk, to a greater or lesser degree. That is not the issue.
Just because something is hazardous does not automatically mean that the best approach to those hazards is to throw millions of people in prison. In fact, every major study of drug policy has concluded that prison only makes those hazards worse and increases the damage done to society. As one commission stated, the more we learn about the dangers of drugs, the more it will become apparent that massive prisons are a medical and social disaster. It is precisely because of those health hazards that we must not send people to prison for drug offenses.
We might win the war on drugs if we could be successful in one of three areas.
First, we could try to stop the production of drugs in foreign countries. There is no credible evidence anywhere which would suggest that we could stop, or even greatly reduce, the production of drugs in foreign countries. The Federal government's own evidence shows that this is impossible and it is a waste of money to try.
Second, we could try to stop drugs at the border. There is no credible evidence anywhere which would suggest that we could stop, or even greatly reduce, the flow of drugs across our border. The Federal government's own evidence shows that this is impossible and it is a waste of money to try.
Third, we could try to stop the sale of drugs within the United States, even while we know that it is impossible to stop their production, or to keep them outof the United States. There is no credible evidence anywhere which would suggest that we could stop, or even greatly reduce, the sale of drugs within the United States. Again, the evidence shows that this is impossible and, not only is it a waste of money to try but, in fact, the war against drugs actually causes far more harm than good.
The largest part of that harm falls upon the African-American community.
I have here a few graphs which were taken directly from US Federal Government statistics. The first graph shows the number of people in prison over the last fifty years. The number of people in prison was relatively stable for about fifty years, until the 1970's when President Nixon started the first major campaign against drugs. Then the number of inmates began to rise sharply. It was also during the 1970's that a major recession hit the country and African Americans, being at the bottom of the economic totem pole, were the first to lose their jobs and the last to be rehired when the economy changed. As a result of the stresses on unemployed fathers, African-American families began to fall apart and we saw the first great rise of black families headed by single mothers. This became especially significant because of what happened in the 1980s.
In the 1980s the rate of incarceration went through the roof. Since 1980 we have tripled the number of people in prison and we now have the largest prisons in the world. We will almost triple their size again before the year 2000.
The next graph shows the racial breakdown of our prisons, and projects those figures into the future, based on current trends. By the year 2000, our prisons will be larger than the Nazi concentration camps of World War II. About two-thirds of all of the people in our prisons will be black men, most of them arrested for non-violent drug offenses. For every black man who goes to college, at least three will go to prison. Two-thirds of all of today's black male teenagers will be dead, disabled, or in prison before their thirtieth birthday. The largest single group of them will go to prison for non-violent drug offenses.
Even as we speak, one-fourth of all of the young black men in America are in prison, on probation, or on parole. In some inner cities such as Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, which were test cases for the war on drugs, more than half of all the young black men in the city are under the supervision of the criminal justice system. It is estimated that more than ninety percent of the black men in these cities have already been incarcerated at least once.
When an African-American man goes to prison he becomes effectively permanently unemployable because nobody will hire a black man with a prison record. Most of the young black men in our nation's capitol are already economically dead as a direct result of the war on drugs.
They become social pariahs, unwanted by employers and even by the women in their own communities. They are unable to restore themselves and the families that we will need to rebuild our inner cities. The economic destruction of African-American men caused by the war on drugs is perhaps the singlest biggest reason that African-American families continued to disintegrate in the 1980's even in the midst of an economic boom.
Even conservative black leaders are now beginning to say that the war on drugs is genocide and the new form of slavery and they are right. Because of our misguided and ignorant drug policies, we have already destroyed the better part of an entire generation of African-American men.
In 1973 President Nixon's National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse said that the real drug problem is not heroin, or cocaine, or marijuana. The real drug problem, they said, is the ignorance of our public officials who have never bothered to read the evidence. Today, we can prove that this is still true.
I would like my opponent to answer one simple question. I have here a list of every major study of drug policy in the last fifty years including the largest studies ever conducted by the US Federal Government and the State of California. They all recommended decriminalization.
Do you agree that the overwhelming weight of the scholarly evidence on drug policy supports decriminalization?
Before you answer, remember that there are only three possible answers to this question.
The first possible answer is yes, you agree that the overwhelming weight of the scholarly evidence supports decriminalization.
The second possible answer is no, you do not agree and, therefore, you can provide a list of scholarly studies equal in quality and quantity to the list I have provided.
The third possible answer is that you don't have a clue what the scholarly evidence says because you have never read the most basic research on the subject.
What is your answer? Do you agree that the overwhelming weight of the scholarly
evidence on drug policy supports decriminalization?
Contents | Feedback | Search | DRCNet Home Page | Join DRCNet
DRCNet Library | Schaffer Library | Information for Drug Policy Reform Activists