Government and Drugs
Our government has been working on the problem of drugs in America for over 100 years. I don’t think anyone would claim that we have less of a drug problem now than we did in 1918. There are two possibilities.
The first explanation is that government action would have been sufficient except for the introduction of external factors that have overwhelmed government efforts. These external factors may have been manmade or natural, nefarious or innocent, but they were external and no fault of the government.
Another explanation is that there is a feedback loop in the effort of government that actually makes the problem worse. That is, something the government is doing to decrease the problem of drugs is actually increasing the problem with drugs via the law of unintended consequences. For this to be the case, the government would have to have the wrong model of the problem. When we have the right model of a problem, we can generally apply a solution without unintended consequences. When we don’t have the right model, unintended consequences generally abound.
Let’s take a look at the first explanation, as it’s usually the one we hear from government. Drugs are much worse now than they were in 1918; there are more people than there were in 1918; life is faster than it was in 1918; the world is more global than it was in 1918; our culture is more heterogeneous than it was in 1918. I could go on, but really, what’s the point. Any of these can be argued, and all are true. So let’s give the government the benefit of the doubt. There are four or more sequential changes to the world that have made the drug problem worse in spite of government’s best efforts. It’s been one after the other. The poor guys in Washington just couldn’t get their heads above water on this one.
I feel for them. Well meaning, the did everything they could. They used every tool they knew how, and it all would have worked except for one thing. Well, okay, more than one thing. Actually, a bunch of things, all happening one after the other, you know, like life. Yeah, that’s it. It would have worked, except, you know, life. I feel for them.
Even giving the government the benefit of the doubt, the outcome has shown that government’s best efforts, their greatest force, has not been sufficient to decrease the drug problem in the context of the world in its reality. Perhaps if time had stopped, it would have worked. It follows that in the context of the real world, using its best efforts and greatest force, government cannot fix the drug problem. Perhaps we should call them the next time time stops.
That leaves us with another option. If we can see that government cannot fix the drug problem, and the drug problem has gotten worse during the time the government has ineffectively used its best efforts, should we not ask if those efforts have made the problem worse? If government can’t fix the drug problem in the context of the real world, perhaps it is because government misunderstands the problem. And if government misunderstands the problem, perhaps it has done things that have caused unintended consequences that have made the problem worse. Here’s just one example.
About 10 years ago we had an escalating prescription opioid problem. Everyone and their uncle was opening a pain clinic to capitalize on the demand for opioids. Government was in an uproar. I was on the Louisiana Governor’s Drug Policy Board at the time and we heard from experts in law enforcement and professional licensing that they were going to shut down these unethical operations. At the end of the presentation I made a statement. I told them the problem wasn’t what they thought it was (drug abuse), but actually an illness (addiction). I told them that if they closed down the pill mills that they’d just shunt all the people on the street for heroin and cause more deaths from overdoses and poisonings. I also said that they’d probably then focus on heroin and some smuggler would find a way to create an even more potent (smaller volume) opioid to avoid their efforts causing even more deaths. I said a better route would be to co-opt the pill mills and insert addiction treatment, giving the owners a financial incentive to do the right thing. That was 2008 or 2009. Prescriptions for opioids peaked in 2010. The deaths from opioid overdoses haven’t peaked at the time of this writing, and fentanyl analogs are all anyone is talking about.
The truth is that government defined the problem, tried to solve the problem, and failed to fix the problem. The problem wasn’t what government defined in the first place, so we really can’t blame them for failing. To be honest, way back when they started, they couldn’t have known better. But they can now.
The problem isn’t drugs, but addiction, a primary chronic brain illness that affects between 10 and 20% of Americans. It is the primary motive force behind the five leading causes of death in this country, and probably accounts for more lost GDP than any other illness besides the common cold.
My goal is to end the problem of addiction in America, and people tell me often, “Boy, this is a good time to be doing that with all the resources available from the government.” But with all those resources aimed at the wrong thing, I doubt they’ll be much help.