Why Do We Treat Heroin Addicts Like They Deserve to Die?

Blindness to humanity in "the other" -- the drug-users -- maintains our country's cruel drug policy.

In the 1980s, Hilary Rosen was lobbying for the City of San Francisco's programs of health care for gays and lesbians (and drug users) with HIV and AIDS, she writes in the Washington Post Friday, March 29, 2013. Sen Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) warned her that she should not be lobbying to help "those kind of people," meaning gays and lesbians, she wrote.

I recall a similar situation in those days. I was counsel to the House Judiciary Committee's Crime Subcommittee and attending a hearing of the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control regarding heroin use. A Member of Congress said encouragingly at one point,"We don't have to worry about heroin anymore. They're all going to die of AIDS."

That chillingly indifferent phrase epitomized the ability of some people to dehumanize the un-favored "others:" gays, lesbians, drug users. In their eyes, if "those people" die, not only is their death not a tragedy, it is a good thing.

This is the powerful belief system that underlies outbreaks of genocide - there are amongst us "others" who endanger us, and we would be better off without them. This belief system is alive today.

On Thursday, March 28, 2013, I testified before the Judiciary Committee of the Maryland House of Delegates which was considering a bill, S.B. 297, to reduce the penalty for possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana to a $100 civil fine. [See video of the hearing here beginning at 1:00.00. My testimony begins at 1:38.10]. The bill already had overwhelmingly passed the Maryland State Senate. One Delegate, in arguing against the legislation, said that no one in his experience in Maryland is being sentenced to jail for a first offense of simple possession of marijuana. He was adamant in opposing this bill which would reduce the penalty from a misdemeanor (a crime) to a civil offense because that would not be enough of a penalty. "What's the penalty ... if it is not going to keep me from getting a job, if it is not going to keep me from getting a college scholarship, it means nothing!" [In this video at 1:51.25]. Because, 'I want people to not use dope!" he shouted, we should have laws that would result in marijuana users losing their jobs and being excluded from getting college scholarships. What would be more harmful to that young person -- using marijuana or being excluded from the job market and excluded from continuing their education?

This is yet another instance of well-meaning people blind to the humanity and dignity of people who aren't straight - in this case, those not abstinent from marijuana use.

Blindness to the humanity in "the other" is also blind to the destructive forces that laws based on dehumanization unleash. "Good Germans" in the 1930s, for example, failed to see the destruction of all of Germany that would ultimately result from believing their society suffered from a "Jewish problem" that needed a "solution."

For thirty years, various anti-narcotics officials and politicians have focused on the "drug problem" as a "demand problem" that needs solutions such as "zero tolerance" and exclusion from education, housing, employment, health care, even nutrition programs.

The Maryland Delegate's preference to use the collateral consequences of criminal laws (because there is no longer a moral consensus that harsh penalties are just) to eliminate the "demand problem" for marijuana and other drugs fails to see the consequences for the whole society. Tens of millions of Americans now have criminal convictions, many of them for drug offenses. Their criminal records prevent them from bringing home a paycheck means. They suffer, but, four years after the 2008 Great Recession, companies like Wal-Mart are still facing flat profits, and every investor suffers, and Wal-Mart doesn't hire more workers.

Imagine how many more customers companies like Wal-Mart, McDonalds, General Motors, Amazon.com, Ford, Foot Locker, H & M, or Ben & Jerry's might have if the tens of millions of people with convictions could get jobs and not have to live on food stamps! Imagine how many more employees they would have hired if they had millions of additional customers. The "war on drugs' increases unemployment among people who have never used drugs and never committed a crime!

Imagine where the Dow Jones Industrial Average or S&P 500 Index could be with that increased productivity. Imagine how many pension funds would not be underfunded, or how many senior citizens could to retire (and have their jobs replaced by younger people) if we weren't deny drug users jobs and education.

Eric E. Sterling has been president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, a private non-profit educational organization, since 1989.
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