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Local view: America's war on drugs is expensive exercise in futility

Most of us in the older-aging category owe some credit for our longer lives to drugs. Many of us take more than one drug -- legal drugs, hopefully. We "druggies" try not to forget our daily routines as we follow the directions of our medical advi...

Most of us in the older-aging category owe some credit for our longer lives to drugs. Many of us take more than one drug -- legal drugs, hopefully. We "druggies" try not to forget our daily routines as we follow the directions of our medical advisers who tell us why, what, when and how to self-administer.

We have learned more about the drug culture of which we have become a part. If we are seeing more than one doctor, we most certainly should make certain that at least one is fully aware of all our prescriptions. Some of us become more forgetful as we get older and thus need to follow written records. We need written directions on the drug containers, and we need to read and practice accordingly. Doctors' handwriting, while providing for a good deal of visible humor, luckily isn't used for such directions. Some drug combinations can do serious harm; being careful is required.

We are aware that drugs have not only been good for us, they have become a lucrative business opportunity, providing professional employment to many people. Television programs and magazines abound with colorful or glossy print advertisements on high-quality paper. There has to be some money in that enterprise. The Jan. 23 News Tribune article, "Good riddance to giveaways," featured a picture of piles -- yes, big piles -- of free promotional knick-knacks drug companies had given to St. Mary's Medical Center and its medical personnel. Stock market entrepreneurs are more than happy to cite drug companies as profit opportunities for folks with money to invest.

Illegal drugs have come to be big business, too. Actually, illegal drugs have long been lucrative for those willing to take the risk. The U.S. tried prohibition in dealing with alcohol, and found the effort to be a loser. Yet the nation continues to try to prohibit drugs, mainly by focusing on the supply side. Evidently, we figure that if we can cut off one source of supply at a time we eventually can eliminate all the sources of illegal drugs.

It hasn't worked in eons. The problem is because demand is so great and profits are so obscene, there are new sources appearing all the time. History keeps repeating itself, and we can't seem to hear the beat.

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In 1931, a New York newspaper man named Franklin P. Adams wrote a poem that summarized the issue and still seems to go unheard:

Prohibition is an awful flop.

We like it.

It can't stop what it's meant to stop.

We like it.

It's left a trail of graft and slime.

It's filled our land with vice and crime.

It don't prohibit worth a dime.

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Nevertheless, we're for it.

The human race has long seemed to believe religious or governmental decrees could prohibit the use of particular drugs. In 1634 in Russia, it was a crime, punishable by death, to smoke tobacco. The phobia with illegal drugs goes back much further than alcohol and the Great Depression. In 1841 a dentist wrote a medical paper in which he told of all the wonderful things doctors and dentists could do with anesthetics such as belladonna, laudanum and cocaine. But religious circumstances prevented it. It took the Civil War and its amputations to usher in the use of anesthesia. About six months into the war, doctors rebelled and went against the religious ban.

Americans were slow learners then, too.

The nation could save billions of dollars by decriminalizing drugs. We could collect government tax money for worthy causes. The majority of prisoners in federal penitentiaries are there for drug offenses; caring for them and feeding them costs easily more than $1 billion annually. We in the U.S. can see the Muslim use of jihad, or holy war, as counterproductive, but we continue to treat our war on drugs as legitimate.

When I was a youngster growing up nine miles west of Menomonie, Wis., I heard about haunted houses that I since have learned were figments of some folks' imaginations. When will we give up this drug war ghost?

Bernie Hughes of Superior is professor emeritus of educational administration at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.

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