In loving, living memory, John Melançon 1928 – 2007
If drugs were legal, my friend Andrew would not have died Sunday night.
This was not my first reaction. My first reaction was unfocused rage (which itself seems to be a coping method when faced with overwhelming sadness).
I want an excuse to punch someone. (Learned tonight: It is surprising how hard one can punch a flat metal pole and not feel much pain.) I want to kill the person who sold Andrew the heroin. (These feelings are not in the past tense.) Thinking about Andrew and mentally celebrating his life focused my rage, however, on the more culpable target of the multiplied evils of drug prohibition. I want to upend the world and shake things into place.
The prohibition of some drugs -- the urge to legislate frequently awful substances out of existence merged with militarized police tactics to attack points of production and distribution, and sometimes transit, but almost never the financing -- is perhaps the most clearly documented public policy failure to still be ruining people's lives. We have experimental evidence -- or rather, as close as we can get in real life -- from changes in policy over time and across places. Alcohol prohibition in the United States from 1920 to 1933 and the decriminization and legalization of additional drugs in other countries today show that harm reduction, instead of prohibition, would have saved more than a hundred thousand lives over the past decade in the United States. More than ten thousand people a year die in the United States alone from violence related to the illegal drug trade and police enforcement against it, as well as the irregular access to and content of unregulated substances. Oh, and the evidence also shows use doesn't go up significantly upon decriminalization, if the amount of use is what you really care about.
The bitter irony is that people most opposed to the genuine evils of drug abuse support policies that make those same evils worse, that corrupt our legal and police institutions, and that provide cover for murderous repression in the United States and in our government's actions overseas, especially in Latin America. This practice of compounding evil is propped up, against all the evidence, in part because it just doesn't feel right for many people to countenance making legal something they have reason to hate, and our mindless media allows us to feel the strongest emotions about things that aren't true. Today let me to put forth a countering emotion.
The policy of trying to control, through violence, what people put in their bodies has robbed me of a person I love.
Let's be clear: The Prohibitionists were right. Alcohol is evil, or rather has many directly attendant evils, including its own hundreds of thousands of deaths in the past decade. But making it illegal is proven to be worse all around (and better policies of harm reduction could further lessen the current toll). The stories of people's lives destroyed by gang violence, police violence, imprisonment, overdose, and more can and must be told for us to see this true picture.
Perhaps some people are too good for this world, or rather, too aware, too sensitive. I've thought that about others more than Andrew. He was too savvy, knowledgable to the point where most simply become cynical, yet he was never mean-spirited; he had too strong of a personality. But I am sure many felt the same about Phil Ochs.
The tragedy of millions -- poverty, war, and the attendant dying by preventable disease and malnutrition -- does not impact most of us, myself included, the way something that happens to someone we have a story to go with affects us. Those with the rare capacity to feel something of the true magnitude of the sadness and joy of our billions of fellow humans on this planet often also have the rare gift of crafting this overwhelming reality into stories that we can emotionally grasp and react to.
I dedicate these words to Andrew, whose voice, had it had the reach it deserved -- ever intelligent, ever entertaining, ever kind and funny, so often imparting interesting knowledge -- might have saved his own life and certainly made this world more worthy of his living in it.
Coda: One more tragedy is how much better he could have said this. He had recently met a woman who had PTSD from a police raid on a wrong address and wanted to co-write her story with her, and tell the larger story of the real, human harm the corrupt drug war is doing through her story. The heightened danger of overdose for users would have been the smallest part of the tragedy in his telling.
http://mlncn.com/node/1844 (very initial draft obituary)
Violent deaths related to the illegal drug trade: at least 5,000 a year. http://www.esquire.com/the-side/richardson-report/drug-war-facts-090109
Causes of death from all sources - 10,000 opioid overdoses a year (half preventable?) - http://drugwarfacts.org/cms/?q=node/30