It has been widely reported that more than 100,000 Americans died of drug overdoses during the 12 months ended April 30, 2021, a record high. A large and increasing portion of overdose deaths is attributable to illicitly obtained drugs, especially fentanyl. Many addicts have no choice but to buy their drugs on the black market, so they can’t be assured of the strength or purity of the drug, or what other drugs might have been added to what they think they are buying. As a result, many overdose deaths are accidental.
Imagine if we treated drug addiction using a medical model rather than a criminal model? If addictive drugs could be purchased legally and were regulated as to strength and purity, many overdose deaths would be avoided. Additionally, people who become addicted might be more likely to ask for help to kick the habit if they weren’t afraid of getting arrested and put in jail. Finally, much of the crime and violence associated with the illegal drug trade would go away if our policy of prohibition were ended.
As I’ve written before, if a new pharmacy opens in your neighborhood, the existing pharmacies don’t start a shooting war to protect their turf. And if someone breaks into or otherwise trys to rob a pharmacy, the pharmacy calls the police. It is the prohibition that causes most of the violence.
Under a legal drug regime, it would still be illegal to drive a vehicle while under the influence of intoxicants, and children would be prohibited from buying drugs. But a person who minds their own business would not be a criminal for using drugs in a peaceful manner.
Thanks to Lee Rood for her expose’ in The Des Moines Register about the financial devastation of an Iowa citizen that was caused by Iowa’s drug tax. As Rood reported, Stephanie Hilgenberg was arrested in 2016 after police found about $5,000 worth of meth in her purse. She was convicted and served time in prison. She is now free and working to support heself and her two kids. But she still owes the Iowa Department of Revenue about $150,000 in tax, penalty and interest! She had failed to pay the “drug stamp tax” required in order to avoid the penalties and interest.
Iowa’s Constitution prohibits excessive fines, but this is technically a tax, not a fine. Again as Rood reported, part of the strategy of the tax was to use as a negotiating lever to get small time dealers to give up their suppliers. In our failed drug wars, the little guy is often sacrificed as a means to what drug warriors consider more important ends.
Drug addiction is a terrible thing. But we will be better served as a society by treating addiction under a medical model rather than a criminal model. Education works better than punishment. One step in the right direction would be to repeal the punitive stamp tax that is added to the injury caused by drug prohibition. State legislatiors should take that up next session.