Everywhere the Drug War

One of the reasons I became interested in drug policy was the wide range of issues it impacts. There are few areas of policy, or of life, that aren't touched by the drug war. I haven't found a connection between the drug war and social security reform -- yet -- but that's an exception. I have learned to presume that there is always another angle I haven't thought of, some harm flowing from the drug laws that has heretofore escaped my notice.

Still, ten years into this, it's seldom that any really new angles come to my attention. This week National Public Radio uncovered a new one. It's a minor angle, at least on the surface, compared with the extremities that have become so common in today's drug war. But sometimes the understated injustices, or even the mere annoyances, can illustrate a point in a different way than the worse ones.

According to a report by Alex Cohen of NPR affiliate station KQED in Los Angeles, aired Thursday night on All Things Considered, the California legislature is wrestling with the issue of teen posture, including the impact of heavy school textbooks that kids have to carry around with them. A student named David from North Hollywood was interviewed who takes Tylenol regularly to manage chronic pain; the culprit, possibly, is the 30 pounds of books in his backpack, 19 percent of his body weight. The American Chiropractic Association recommends that young people limit their backpack loads to 10 percent of their weight.

Contributing to the phenomenon, a state politico explained, is the decision by some school systems to stop providing students with locker space. Schools are trying to cope with the twin problems of guns and drugs, which some administrators see the lockers as facilitating. Get rid of the lockers, and maybe that will help to protect students from drugs and guns, I suppose is the line of reasoning.

You can't blame school officials from wanting to keep the guns, or drugs, out of their schools. I don't know enough about guns and schools to say whether eliminating lockers could make students safer. I'm skeptical, but I don't really know.

I do know enough about drugs and schools to say that eliminating lockers is unlikely to do more than shift drug selling from inside the buildings to outside in the parking lots. And I know enough about drugs and guns to say that drug prohibition is one of the reasons so many young people possess guns, in schools and elsewhere. Prohibition creates a criminal underground that is governed by violence or the threat thereof, and which is subject to no government regulation. Hence an incentive is created for kids to sell drugs to other kids, in the schools, and to carry guns to protect themselves and their goods. And the guns thereby become normal and customary, spreading out to non-sellers.

It is possible to overestimate the contribution prohibition-spurred locker closures make to teen back pain, of course. One expert commented that lack of exercise or stretching is a more important factor than heavy textbooks, in his opinion. Still, the war on drugs has been potentially implicated in a public health problem facing our nation's youth. Who would have guessed it? Maybe no one, but that only demonstrates even more strongly how pervasive the unintended consequences of the drug laws are in our society -- you just can't get away from them, wherever you look. And if the example seems trivial, tell that to young David -- who deals with pain daily, whose liver is at risk of damage from frequent Tylenol use; who may suffer such pain all his life, perhaps worsening with age -- in part because his school won't let him keep his books in a locker, because they're afraid that some of the lockers might be used to store drugs or to hide guns carried by students who sell drugs.

There are innumerable ways the drug laws serve to adversely affect our nation's youth, not to mention the rest of us. The scariest thing is that we have no good way to know or predict all of them. Rather than tearing out school lockers and forcing the nation's children to bear the resulting toil and inconvenience -- knowing full well that this too will fail to solve the problem -- shouldn't we try to address the root causes instead? Legalization would be a much sounder, more fundamental way of reducing the dangers to young people posed by drugs under prohibition and the drug war. I say, keep the lockers, change the drug laws.

David Borden is executive director of Drug Reform Coordination Network

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