A better way to deal with drugs

By TIM KALICH,

The drug war in the United States has been an 89-year financial and social failure.

The country has spent hundreds of billions of dollars chasing and locking up users and traffickers. It has exploded the prison population, making the United States the most imprisoned nation in the world. It has decimated poor, mostly minority communities. It has even contributed to this country’s immigration problems, as refugees from Central and South America flee their native lands to get away from the bloodshed of the drug cartels fighting for their share of a $100 billion a year U.S. market.

And for all of these costs, the drug war has not nudged downward the use and abuse of drugs.

Christina Dent is convinced there is a better way.

Dent, a Ridgeland housewife, is leading the crusade to change the way people in her native state think about drugs and how to deal with the harm they can cause.

Dent is an unlikely champion for drug legalization but a persuasive one. She doesn’t smoke or drink or do drugs, saying they have never interested her. She is a self-described “Christian conservative.” She graduated from Belhaven College with a degree in biblical studies, home-schools her three sons and was, like most Mississippians, initially hard-nosed about drug users.

Then, a few years ago, she started to rethink all of her assumptions and do her own research. Her epiphany came while she and her husband were foster-parenting children born to drug-addicted mothers. She saw that separating the children from their mothers and locking the latter up was good for neither party.

Dent has founded an organization called “End It for Good” and has been carrying her message around the state in small-group discussions, just like the one held in Greenwood this past week.

To illustrate her point, Dent uses the image of a drug capsule split in half. The left half represents the harm done by drugs, the right the harm done by the drug war. She uses as her bible Johann Hari’s 2015 book “Chasing the Scream,” which documents the history of U.S. drug enforcement, starting with the 1930 creation of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and all of the collateral damage that it has produced since.

There are three main harms that come from treating drug use as a crime rather than as a potential illness, says Dent.

nIt creates a black market in which gangs and cartels control the distribution and use violence to protect and expand their piece of the business.

nIt eliminates quality control. Drugs become ever more potent and laced with who knows what, producing, for example, the fentanyl-linked deaths in the current opioid epidemic.

nIt fuels addiction by treating users as criminals rather than as patients. Locking people up who have drug problems is “just a trauma production machine, and trauma drives addiction,” says Dent.

Dent and Hari both refer regularly to the lessons this nation learned when it disastrously tried to outlaw alcohol from 1920 to 1933. Most everything experienced during that war on a different mind-altering substance has been repeated in the war on drugs, with one exception.

Prohibition did not go after the users, only those who manufactured or sold alcoholic beverages.

Dent advocates total legalization of drugs, from marijuana to heroin, but with government regulation on their manufacture and distribution, just as there is now with alcohol. Some less addictive drugs, such as marijuana, would be available widely from dispensaries, with age restrictions on the buyers, just as is being done in the dozens of states that have legalized medical or recreational use of marijuana. More potent drugs would be more limited in availability and might require that they be consumed in the presence of medical professionals.

She acknowledges that legalization could cause an uptick in drug use and abuse, since the stigma of it would be less, but she believes the increase would be small and level off, as was the case with alcohol consumption following the end of Prohibition.

A middle ground is decriminalization, which would continue to go after traffickers but end the prosecution of people whose only crime is possessing drugs for their own consumption. If they are problem users — Hari says only 10 percent of drug users become addicts — then they would be steered toward treatment. Rather than putting 90 percent of the nation’s drug-fighting budget into law enforcement, as is now the case, it would flip the script and invest the majority of the funding in prevention and treatment.

Dent has me convinced on decriminalization. On legalization, I’m not there yet, but I’m listening.