The Radicals Were Always Right: Now Is the Time to Decriminalize All Drugs

by Mike Ludwig, Truthout | Report –

The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids recently startled me with a blog post titled, “Why You Shouldn’t Use the Word Addict.” Drug addiction is a disease, the blog explains. People shouldn’t be defined by having an illness, so it’s better to use first-person language and say “someone with diabetes” rather than “diabetic.” The same should go for the word “addict.”

In other words, the ad was saying, we shouldn’t stigmatize people living with addiction by identifying them based on one condition with which they struggle. I was startled by the blog because stigmatizing drugs and drug users is exactly what the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids did for years under its previous banner, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

“This is drugs. This is your brain on drugs.” Sound familiar?

The Partnership is best known for aiming anti-drug advertisements at young people during the 1980s and 1990s. Nowadays, these ads are sources of ironic nostalgia on YouTube, where they are routinely mocked and parodied. However, at the height of the drug war, the ads were mainstays on the airwaves, supported first by generous foundations and later by a billion-dollar partnership with federal authorities.

Thanks to the Partnership and its allies, young people like myself learned that smoking marijuana would deflate you like a balloon, and using drugs was like cracking your skull open and frying your brains on a hot skillet. Short on facts but heavy on scare tactics, these ads warned against becoming a “junkie” or an “addict,” all while portraying drug users as “criminals” and “losers.” This is just the type of stigmatization the Partnership warns against today.

What changed? For starters, the anti-drug ads and the broader “Just Say No” campaign had no discernable impact on rates of teen drug use, and government funding eventually dried up. Social attitudes have grown more liberal, particularly towards marijuana. But there are much more sinister reasons for the anti-drug movement’s change in tone.

Radical Ideas Go Mainstream

For decades, US border and law enforcement operations have fueled large-scale violence across Mexico and Latin America. At home, harsh anti-drug laws caused incarceration rates to skyrocket, devastating families and communities of color in the process. Rates of teen drug use are declining, but the nation is reeling from an ongoing crisis of fatal opioid overdoses. The government reports that rising overdose rates have been driven in part by prescriptions signed by medical doctors, a far cry from the lurking street dealers depicted in racist anti-drug ads of the 1990s.

The dominant media took notice as the overdose crisis reached into whiter, wealthier neighborhoods. Suddenly, the Obama administration and lawmakers in both parties began uttering phrases like “public health issue” and “access to drug treatment” that reformers have repeated for years. What’s more, politicians began embracing strategies first developed by grassroots radical organizers working outside of the law.

In the 1980s, gay activists and radical health care organizers took matters into their own hands as HIV/AIDS spread through neighborhoods in New York City and other urban areas. They knew the virus spread when heroin users shared syringes because there weren’t enough around. They also knew that opioid dependency can be very difficult to treat, and that an abstinence-only approach would not eradicate use. So, they organized street-level services where used syringes could safely be exchanged for new ones, despite laws against possessing drug paraphernalia. They treated drug users as neighbors and human beings, not the desperate burnouts conjured up by anti-drug campaigns.

These early harm reduction activists eventually teamed up with forward-thinking public health workers, and over the next 30 years, syringe exchange became an international gold standard for controlling rates of HIV and hepatitis C infection. Despite endorsements from public health offices across the globe, Congress retained a ban on funding syringe exchanges until 2009, when Democrats were finally able to lift it. After regaining a majority, Republicans put the ban right back into place.

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Reprinted with permission from Truthout