Reflecting on Addiction and Prohibition

“Spike in heroin overdoses across Mass. stirs fears.”  That’s the headline in today’s Boston Globe.  Sadly, we all know it could have been a headline in the Boston Globe on any given Tuesday over the past 50 years.  Even though the headline contains powerfully charged words: “heroin,” “overdoses (deaths)” and “fears” it likely will bounce off the brains of most readers.   It’s not because they don’t understand what the words mean or that they don’t care; I think most people have simply seen them too much.

The first evidence that the words have lost their clout is what is not happening today.  People in fear change their behavior is some way.  Once the fear is stirred the fear stirs activity.  No one I know (including me) is stirring; no one is doing anything differently today in relation to addiction and the heroin market than they might have done before the wonderful actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman was found dead or before the Globe headline reminded us of the tragic consequences of heroin addiction for regular folks.

A more accurate headline might be this:

“Heroin deaths up, public confused, unsure”

Some want the criminal justice process to do more.

First we should ask, what is the effect on addiction of intensive enforcement of the spectrum of drug laws, especially the prohibition of manufacture, sale and use?  What do we mean by more?

Addiction is an allergy, an abnormal response to the ingestion or other introduction of a substance to the human body.  The normal response to the effects of heroin or booze etc. is to use only so much and no more.  Normal brains say ‘I don’t like this sensation,  I won’t use heroin again or I’ll limit myself to two drinks when I drink.’  The allergic response is to want more, and more, and more.

I’ll bet to the very end Mr. Hoffman loved his children, his life partner and his friends and other family.  By himself, he was powerless over heroin.  Not just because heroin is easily addictive, but because he was an addict.  Among the rest of us, addicts go by the name of alcoholic, drunk, junkie, loser, etc.   For every addict who can’t stop, only three outcomes are available: death, prison or the psych ward.

Heroin is horrible.  It’s a killer with lots of collateral victims.  The question isn’t whether or not heroin is bad, but what’s the best way to address its effects on people?

Well, I hope I don’t sound like a pro-drugs whack job when I assert that on the evidence Prohibition is not an effective strategy to address addiction.  I wish more cops and POs could hear the testimony of addicts.  Thousands have been spared great misery by getting arrested for the effects of their intoxication – DUI, disorderly, A&B, B&E — and then getting guided to effective therapy by cops and probation officers.  Cops and POs could and must continue to of this even if we were to move away from Prohibition.  Prohibition of manufacture and sale do not seem to have worked as planned. Police and the federal agencies have sacrificed a lot of heroism, selflessness and lives to give their full measure of devotion to the “war on drugs.”  There have been hundreds of thousands of casualties.  Addiction and the heroin market have not been among them.  They have thus far emerged relatively vital and unscathed.  The casualties have included:

  • Police officers
  • Police families: wives, husbands, children, parents, siblings, et al.
  • Police departments
  • Heroin industry workers, at home and abroad, including small-time drug losers locked up on three-strike and Rockefeller-style drug offenses.
  • Residents of communities beset by heroin, by its violent commerce and the physical ravages of addiction
  • Addicts

Our institutions of justice have been damaged by the corrosive effects of Prohibition.  Just as in the alcohol Prohibition of the 1920’s we have seen the values and aspirations of justice attacked ferociously.  We have seen bribery and murder.  We have seen Prohibition-generated corruption erode the legitimacy of our institutions.

Hundreds of thousands of men are locked up for drug offenses, making us one of the world leaders in the percentage of our people who have spent time incarcerated.  For young black men, imprisonment is as normal a right of passage as Confirmation and Bar Mitzvah are for white Catholics and Jews.

In my opinion, we need to separate the questions of addiction on the one hand and disrupting the market on the other.

By the way, in doing so I believe we honor the sacrifice of those who have been hurt and killed in their selfless actions in this fight.  It says their lives — and the lives of those currently in uniform — mean even more.

Replacement of Prohibition with a different approach to market regulation would help.  If we could regulate the market, the way we do with booze and tobacco, we might be able to manipulate it to reduce availability.  Witness CVS stores also in the Boston Globe today announcing in the news pages and in a full-page ad that they’re no longer selling cigarettes and tobacco products. And finding a place to smoke in 2014 is at least as hard as finding a place with no smoking in 1964.

To regulate the drug market isn’t to promote it.  It’s to recognize the reality that it exists, that it’s a death machine and that we can take thoughtful, more evidence-based steps to reduce the pain and death in which it traffics.

On addiction, we know from research on programs such as AA that addicts benefit from learning a way of life in which they embrace the help of a “higher power” whether they call it God or the group and get the tools to let go of the fears and cravings that drive their allergy.


About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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