There are interesting parallels between how society chooses to scapegoat certain segments of the population. Troy Duster writes in the Legislation of Morality about how certain traits become the defining characteristic of the individual in the public mind. For example a man might be kind, generous, able to work and take care of his family. He doesn't steal or engage in other victim-crimes, but if he is an addict or homosexual none of that matters. The mere fact that he has the status of addict or homosexual precludes any notion of compatibility with also being a moral person in the eyes of those judging him. The label of addict or homosexual becomes a total identity that prevents others in society from forming an unbiased opinion about the person's worth. Once the label is applied people avoid the individual and he is ostracized to the fringes of society.
Homosexuality has come a long way since the 1950's. Thomas Szasz makes the point that it was only when homosexuals organized and demanded recognition of their rights as human beings that society, and particularly psychiatry, began to change their opinion of homosexuality from a mental disease to something resembling a human right. It is my opinion that drug users need to undergo the same transformation.
It is my view that the "treatment not incarceration" position taken by most liberals is just as morally bankrupt as the "lock up all the junkies and throw away the key" conservative position. I do recognize that some users and addicts are deeply troubled by their drug use, just as some homosexuals are deeply troubled by their sexual orientation. I have no problem with people seeking help for things they perceive are causing problems in their life. However I have a major problem when other people make that decision for them. Forced treatment for addicts who do not want it should be viewed in the same light as "conversion therapy" for homosexuals who do not view their sexual orientation as a problem in their life that needs correcting.
Unfortunately within the US so many drug users believe that their use of drugs is abuse and the symptom of a disease. This is only reinforced by institutes like the National Institure on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which claim that drugs "hijack" the brain. But what does this really mean? If your brain has been hijacked then you are not in control of your actions and thus not really human. If you are not fully human then you are not afforded the inalienable rights which all people are entitled to and thus coercive measures that would normally be considered gross violations of human rights (especially loss of liberty and torture) become acceptable. Both addicts and homosexuals have been lobotomized for their "diseases." Some "rehabs" like Straight Inc. have used "treatments" like beatings, restraints, sleep deprivation and public humiliation. Check out Stanton Peele or google Rise and Fall of the Official View of Addiction by Bruce K. Alexander for devastating critiques of the addiction as a disease model.
In 100 years people will look at the treatment of drug users in the same light as treatment of Jews in 1940's Germany, Japanese-Americans in the US during WW2 and homosexuals from the 19th century well into the 20th. I only hope it won't take 100 years so I can see the transformation in my lifetime. Drug users have been at the vanguard of every single important civil rights issue in this country. I have been watching user unions get politically organized with a mixture of glee and sadness. I am very pleased that people are finally pushing back against a system that seeks to marginalize, criminalize and yes even exterminate a group of people for their choice of intoxicant. It only makes me sad that these organizations are almost all in countries other than the US. Given the political climate in the US these days an organization advocating for the right of people to use illegal drugs would probably be branded supporting terrorism. I can hear the refrain now, "don't you know heroin use supports al Qaeda!"
We could solve two major problems, opiate addiction in the US and criminal organizations funded by illicit crops, virtually overnight if the US bought all the opium produced in Afghanistan and sold it at cost to our citizens. Opium may still be tainted with the association of an illegal drug but no where near the level of heroin. In the public mind these two substances are very different. Opium is "natural" and therefor "green," "organic" and a "plant not drug". Heroin is a chemical, and therefor "toxic", "unnatural" and "bad drug." The same arguments cannabis advocates make for the plant vs. synthetic drugs. Although in both cases they may not be wrong, its just the issues are more complicated than "natural vs unnatural."
I am exhausted at times trying to forward the debate. Fortunately we are not alone. It seems as though the drug reform movement has more allies than ever before. People are finally realizing that if we keep doing what we have been doing for the past 100 years, and especially since the 1980's, we are going to have the same results. On one hand the Reagan-era war on drugs was a disaster for users, but just like the escalating enforcement of alcohol prohibitionists in the 1920's was its eventual downfall, so the overreaching of the drug prohibitionists will be their downfall. We don't need to convince people to legalize, just convince them prohibition doesn't work. I think that just about everyone who doesn't work for the government can see that prohibition is a failure. It's just that all we have ever known for nearly three generations in the US is prohibition. There are now more voices than ever calling for decriminalization. Decriminalization is only a band-aid on a gushing chest wound, legalization is the only logical conclusion to ending prohibition. Once people accept the idea that ending prohibition won't cause the sky to fall they will come to legalization on their own.
Evidence from countries that have decriminalized like Portugal is irrefutable. As more countries and states decriminalize, some will experiment with different models of legalization. If the US and the UN would just get out of the way this would happen a lot faster. Columbia just announce plans to give addicts prescriptions for cocaine. Canada and a host of European countries are using heroin prescriptions. In the first trial of heroin prescriptions in Canada 10% of the people were given dilaudid in place of heroin. The addicts couldn't tell the difference. While we know there is no pharmacological reason to use dilaudid over heroin there is a big difference in the public's mind. Dilaudid prescriptions may be the way forward for those who reject methadone or suboxone. I suspect morphine or raw opium would also be acceptable for a great number of opiate users.
There is a great debate available on youtube titled: DPA's Ethan Nadelmann Debates Former DEA Head Asa Hutchinson at University of Arkansas. The debate was sponsored by the organization students for sensible drug policy so the crowd is naturally biased, but I think Nadelmann completely destroyed the vacuous arguments put forth by Hutchinson. Nadelmann is super smart and has a mastery of the issues few others possess. I always enjoy seeing him on TV and reading his articles in various publications. It almost makes you feel sorry for those debating against him, but not really.
But then again I'm biased. Most of what I read is anti-drug war blogs, articles and books. I do try to read the pro-prohibition literature, if only to understand the arguments put forward, know your enemy and all that, but honestly one can only stomach so much hypocrisy, misinformation and puritanism.