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Yet there are, unquestionably, people who do need the drug, and they’re unquestionably suffering—and in some cases dying—because they can’t get it. Peter McWilliams is one of the sadder examples. Angel Raich—whose case upheld the federal government’s imposition of federal law on states like California—is another. Or consider National Review’s Richard Brookhiser, a credentialed conservative who, as it happens, used marijuana to help with the nausea that came with chemotherapy when he was battling cancer. When Drug Czar John Walters said in 2005 that there’s no evidence of a medical benefit to marijuana, Brookhiser responded, “He is a liar or an ignoramus, probably both.” Perhaps more eloquently, in testimony before Congress in 1996, Brookhiser said:
“My support for medical marijuana is not a contradiction of my principles, but an extension of them. I am for law and order. But crime has to be fought intelligently and the law disgraces itself when it harasses the sick. I am for traditional virtues, but if carrying your beliefs to unjust ends is not moral, it is philistine."
One more recent area where the drug war is corrupting medical treatment is in the treatment of pain—specifically, chronic pain. By some estimates, as many as 30 million Americans suffer from untreated chronic pain. That number is only likely to rise as the country continues to age. A promising new treatment called “high-dose opiate therapy” has proven successful at keeping chronic pain at bay in many patients. The problem is that as patients build up a resistance, doctors must titrate up their dosages, to the point where some patients can take 40 or more pills per day. These patients don’t get high, and they don’t suffer any ill effects. They aren’t addicted, they’re merely dependent. Take the medication away, and the pain comes back.
Unfortunately, because some addicts use opiate painkillers to get high, the Drug Enforcement Administration has decided to play doctor, determining that no patient should ever need medication at dosages that high, and that any doctor prescribing drugs in those quantities must be dealing (or “diverting,” as it’s called in the white collar world). While it’s certainly possible that some doctors who prescribe pain medication are unethical, the DEA’s aggressive, un-nuanced pursuit of pain doctors has put the fear of prosecution into nearly all doctors who specialize in pain treatment (and scared young doctors from entering the field). Driven by politicians spooked by a spate of irresponsible press reports warning of an OxyContin fad sweeping the country, the DEA’s high-profile pursuit of pain specialists has poisoned the relationship between pain doctors and their patients, and left the country with a dire shortage of physicians willing to prescribe pain medication at the dosages many patients need.
We have drug cops dictating medical policy, and it’s leading to all sorts of unnecessary suffering. Some patients have lost one doctor to a DEA prosecution, spent weeks to find another who will treat them, sometimes miles away, only to have that doctor come under investigation, too. More than a few pain patients have attempted suicide after being unable to find a doctor to treat them.
All just collateral damage. The DEA’s mission is to prevent people from getting high. If it takes an overly broad, overly aggressive, chilling campaign against doctors to do that, leaving millions of people in needless, sometimes debilitating pain, so be it.
And for What?
Even if the drug war were working—even if all the horrible things the federal government says are caused by illicit drugs were accurate (and some of them admittedly are), and even if the war on drugs were proving successful in eradicating or even significantly diminishing our access to those drugs—you’d have a difficult time arguing that the benefits would be worth the costs.
But the kicker is, of course, that it isn’t working. Most of the federal government claims about the evils associated with illicit drugs are either exaggerated or misapplied effects not of the drugs, but of the government’s prohibition of them.
More to the point, none of this is working, even taking drug war advocates’ positions at face value. It is as easy to achieve an illegal high today as it was in 1981, as it was in 1971, as it was in 1915. The vast majority of you reading this either know where to get a bag of marijuana, or know someone who knows where to get one. Specific drugs come in and out of vogue, but the desire to alter one’s consciousness, to escape life’s drab monotonies, or just to call in a different mindset is as strong and pervasive as it’s ever been, going back to the stone age. It’s also just as easy to fulfill.
In a 1986 speech designed to drum up public support for yet another round of War on Drugs legislation, President Ronald Reagan officially designated illicit drugs a threat to America’s national security. After declaring that, “We’re running up a battle flag,” Reagan then compared America’s determination in the war on drugs to that of the French troops at the World War I Battle of Verdun. As the journalist Dan Baum notes while explaining Reagan’s speech in his book Smoke and Mirrors, Verdun was a protracted, bloody, brutal battle of attrition. A quarter million troops lost their lives and another 700,000 were wounded in the months-long battle for a small strip of land that offered little practical advantage to either army. In fact, in much of Europe, Verdun has come to symbolize the futility of war, and the way governments are willing to write off the mass loss of human life as mere collateral damage in the pursuit of some seemingly noble but ultimately shallow and elusive aim.
Looking back, Reagan’s analogy was quite a bit more appropriate than he probably intended.