DUCK SOUP: All Unglued
It sometimes astounds me how blinkered we can be when emotion climbs behind the steering wheel. I am thinking now about drug policy, but the same feelings and irrationality erupt on issues like abortion, the death penalty, ebonics, euthanasia, nuclear power, the West Bank and vegetarianism to name just a handful of hot button topics. Visceral certainty precludes thought, as if our stomachs swallowed our brains and cut all the phone lines to the outside world.How else to explain our complex approach to drugs? We subsidize tobacco, socially encourage alcohol consumption, push prescription pills ad infinitum, base our hemispheric foreign policy on some sort of international Tough Man competition, and occasionally lock up a first time marijuana offender and throw away the key. We pay enormous medical bills for AIDS and hepatitis treatment much of which could be easily avoided by providing addicts with cheap clean needles. We allow sale of all sorts of toxic chemicals, some of which kids inhale to get high, and ban sale of relatively innocuous plant materials that have been used by every culture in history. We tell kids that pills will make them feel better and then tell them it is bad to take pills that make them feel good.When I was a child I enjoyed assembling plastic models. One company had a line of life-like birds, and many winter nights I sat at a desk gluing and painting a blue jay or cedar waxwing. Suddenly there was a big flap about glue sniffing and toy companies were forced to produce un-sniffable glue. The result was that my models didn't stick together. Anyone who thinks that the new glue prevented idiots from burning their brains on poisonous inhalants must have burned his brain on some sort of poisonous inhalant. There is more legal stuff to sniff today than ever before. It is no wonder that the drug education program known as D.A.R.E. is wildly popular despite continued failure to change behavior. People don't want to be confused with facts when something feels so right and decent. The theory is that children who have a positive interaction with a police officer and are taught to resist peer pressure will avoid drugs. Although multiple studies show that D.A.R.E. graduates use drugs as often as non-graduates -- frequently even more often -- the program continues to grow. A large percentage of federal drug education money is funneled into D.A.R.E. coffers, and over 90 percent of North American school systems have joined the program. At the same time, Oakland, Calif. schools have dumped the program as a failure, and similar proposals have surfaced in Tacoma and Seattle, Washington, Austin, Texas, Jefferson County, Kentucky, and Kokomo, Indiana. If careful studies, including those done for the Justice Department, show over and over that D.A.R.E. graduates use more drugs than other kids and use them at an earlier age, should we continue to fund a loser? Are intentions more important than results? We blind ourselves to the effect of our policies if we assume that great slogans automatically produce great results. Shouldn't we, at the very least, thoughtfully explore alternative drug education programs?The War on Drugs presents the same sort of puzzle. We have managed to make the illegal drug trade very profitable, and at the same time increased the market. If we had declared War on Ice Cream thirty years ago, the nefarious kingpins at Ben and Jerry's would be running Colombia today and Eskimo Pies would cost ten bucks. Agents would seize tons of tutti-frutti and kids would know it was easier to buy an illegal ice cream sandwich than a beer. I know, based on reaction to previous commentaries, that some listeners will be experiencing an irresistible knee-jerk just now, and believe that I am somehow in favor of drug abuse. I am not. I think the model we have developed of addicts messing up their lives and families and jobs is pretty accurate. But the policy pieces don't seem to stick together very well. Maybe we should look for better glue.