Stamping out Addiction
The Addict and the Law.
by Alfred R. Lindesmith.
Indiana University Press. 337 pp. $7.50.
I suppose it is an exaggeration to say that no sensible person opposes changing the way we presently deal with our narcotics problem for something akin to the British system, but it is not much of an exaggeration. Our system of prohibiting addicts legal access to drugs is brutal and unjust. It creates a vast illicit trade in narcotics that we cannot control, thus insuring a continuing recruitment of new addicts, who commit crimes to support their habits. It encourages police corruption, both in the form of bribery and graft and a cynical contempt for civil liberties and due process. Britain and other Western European countries, on the other hand, allow physicians to prescribe maintenance doses of opiates for incurable addicts and, as a direct consequence, have no illicit traffic, small numbers of addicts, and no “narcotics problem.”
The argument is so well known, and has been repeated so often by social scientists, physicians, lawyers, and journalists, that only incurable moralists and the police and governmental bureaucracies that live by enforcing our present laws refuse to accept its obvious logic. Precisely because the argument is so well known, I approached Lindesmith's new book with a certain trepidation. Even though Lindesmith is one of the country's most distinguished experts on the subject, having spent thirty years in research on it, what could he say that had not been said before? Wouldn't the book be just a rehash of what we already know?
I need not have worried. Aside from arguments over policy, most scientific writing on narcotics (like most of the writing on any form of deviance) has focused on those accused of wrong-doing rather than on those making the accusation. We concern ourselves with the characteristics of addicts, how they got that way and how they behave now that they are that way. Even when we attribute their behavior to the operations of the law, we seldom ask how the law got that way or why law enforcers act as they do. In this book, Lindesmith raises precisely these questions and gives the first coherent account of how our narcotics control system actually works, of what police, prosecutors, and judges do to addicts, and of how the Federal Narcotics Bureau has achieved a monolithic control that the statute never gave it.
His basic premise is that the system a country uses to control narcotics shapes the kind of problem it has. Countries which allow addiction to be handled in private medical practice have practically no problem at all. Countries which prohibit the use of narcotics—such as the United States, Canada, and most of the Asiatic nations—have sizable problems of spreading addiction and addiction-related crimes. Countries which have changed from a permissive to a prohibitionist system, as Japan did under the influence of our military government, have experienced a startling growth of addiction and crime. Lindesmith's skillful synthesis of data from around the world nails this point down surely.
His major contribution is a masterful analysis of our system of control, of the problems police and prosecutors face in trying to get rid of the underground drug market. Assume that they are honest and sincerely wish to arrest and convict the major wholesalers; nothing less will do, because everyone recognizes that nothing is accomplished by arresting smalltime peddlers. How do you find out who the big boys are? How do you get evidence that will stand up in court? There is no victim to bring a complaint, as there is in most crimes, for addicts do not want to see their suppliers go to jail; and middlemen, the only ones who might know those on top, do not wish to endanger their business arrangements. Even if someone is pushed by pique to inform, the fear of retaliation inhibits him. The police solve their problem in several ways, but the chief way is to arrest the easily caught user on some pretext and force him to act as a stool pigeon, cutting off his supply of drugs if he refuses, and furnishing him with drugs confiscated from others if he cooperates. These procedures seldom net a big wholesaler. But the stool pigeon will turn in other addicts and small time peddlers, creating an arrest record which can be pointed to as evidence that something is being done. Since addicts are poor, they are seldom represented by counsel and, even though the evidence was gathered illegally and the arrest was unconstitutional, they are more often convicted than not.
Not surprisingly, such a system has no effect on the amount of addiction or on the amount of crime committed by addicts. Enforcement officials blame the lack of results on overly lenient judges and press successfully for stricter laws, stiffer penalties, and mandatory sentences which will limit judicial discretion in sentencing. The latest revision in the federal law (1956) provided, for instance, mandatory five- to twenty-year sentences, with no possibility of probation or parole, for a first selling offense, and a possibility of the death penalty for selling heroin to a minor. State laws have been similarly hardened. Lindesmith shows that such changes have almost no effect, because juries will not convict when the punishment is so grossly out of line with the offense and because prosecutors will not bring cases to trial that are so likely to be lost. In fact, the chief consequence is that prosecutors find it difficult to bargain with addicts for a guilty plea (because judges seldom give more than the minimum sentence) and end up charging them with lesser offenses, such as disorderly conduct, to regain the flexibility they need to continue to operate as they always have.
Why, given such a patently inefficient and illogical system of control, have we not made the obviously needed and often recommended changes that Lindesmith and others have argued for so convincingly? The book gives, fully documented, the expected answer: the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and its recently retired Commissioner, Mr. Harry J. Anslinger. The Bureau has always had the notion, as one of its officials told Lindesmith in explaining why an agent had threatened him with unspecified trouble if he did not stop espousing the British system, that it has among its other functions that of “disseminating right information and preventing the dissemination of wrong information.” The Bureau has performed that function with zeal. It circulates vitriolic attacks on critics of its policies. It publishes meaningless and misleading statistics designed to buttress arguments for the status quo. It produces misinterpretations, à la 1984, of such matters of fact as the character of drug control in Britain and of such matters of historical record as the reason for the “failure” of the narcotics clinics established in the early 1920's. (The Bureau claims they were inherently unworkable, but the record shows that several successful clinics were closed down because of relentless Bureau pressure.) It has harassed publishers of anti-Bureau books and prevented a Canadian film on addiction from being shown in this country. It has, perhaps most important of all, frightened the medical profession into abdicating its clear responsibility to insist on the right to treat addiction in ways that medical research and experience prove sound rather than in ways dictated by a policeman's prejudice. All in all, it is a disgraceful story of an executive agency run wild, making policy without regard for the intent of the statute that authorized its existence or for judicial and constitutional restrictions on its actions, harassing and shouting its opponents down and trying to prevent any meaningful public discussion of what it has wrought.
Lindesmith ends his book with a sober plea for reform, a plea that carries great weight because of the detailed description and indictment of current practice that precedes it. He advocates a simple plan: let physicians treat addicts privately, just as they treat other patients. This would require no change in the law, for it is not the law itself but Bureau regulations issued under the law that have created the current mess. It would save a great deal of money now spent on law enforcement and compulsory treatment facilities. It would free physicians and scientists from police restraints so that they can do without fear of arrest the research and experimentation that may produce better methods of treatment. It would destroy the underground traffic in drugs and relieve addicts of the necessity to commit crimes in order to maintain their habits. And it would undo a great injustice, increasing respect for the law at a time when that respect is sorely needed. Lindesmith's lucid account of why our system is as bad as it is may hasten the reform that has been so long coming.