A journalist and freelance writer, Beth Johnson received an advanced
degree in literacy education from Syracuse University. Johnson’s crisp,
no-nonsense prose style has served her well in the public relations writing
she has done for a college news bureau and a community mental health
center. Formerly on the faculties of Goshen College and New England
College, Johnson has also written for a number of publications, among
them the Starke County Ledger and the New Hampshire Business Review.
Revised for this text, the following selection is taken from a collection of
Johnson’s essays dealing with the impact of drugs on society.
Our Drug Problem
Nearly everyone agrees that drug abuse is an overwhelming national
problem. But a solution to that problem finds far less consensus. Some
advocate such drastic measures as the automatic execution of drug dealers.
Others favor the legalization of narcotics, believing that the illicit nature of
the drug trade is largely responsible for our predicament. Beth Johnson
argues in this selection that the removal of legal restraints would be the
beginning of a drug-induced nightmare from which America might never
Imagine, if you will, the final reel of a trashy “B” movie based o the Biblical story
of Sodom and Gomorrah. You remember the tale of two cities so given over to evil
practices, immorality, and mindless self-indulgence that God finally destroyed them by
raining down fire and brimstone.
What sort of activity do you suppose a filmmaker would choose in order to
portray, in an updated fashion, the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah? The perfect
choice, in my mind, would be unrestricted drug use. Think of the potential for destructive
behavior: self-annihilation through drug overdose; sexual excesses with no concern for
consequences; reckless acts leading to crippling or fatal accidents; obsession with
narcotics to the point of ignoring family needs…the possibilities go on and on. Unlimited
access to drugs would provide the perfect metaphor for the legendary evil that was
Sodom and Gomorrah.
Incredibly, in America today, supposedly responsible and intelligent people are
recommending the legalization of narcotics. The war on drugs has been lost, they say; it’s
time to stop pouring enormous resources into a futile battle. Let’s change strategies, they
argue, and try attacking the problem by removing all legal restrictions on drug use.
Has a more ludicrous proposal ever been seriously introduced for public
discussion? Are we honestly being asked to consider raising our children in a society that
says, “Yes, we know that these substances will ruin your and your family’s lives and will
kill you sooner or later. We’d really rather you didn’t use drugs, but it’s just too difficult
to try to enforce the law”?
Apparently we are. Conservative columnist William F. Buckley, Jr., Nobel Prize-
winning economist Milton Friedman, Mayor Kurt Schmoke of Baltimore, and U. S. Reps.
Fortney Stark of California and Steny Hoyer of Maryland have been among the
respected—and presumable not drug-addled—folks who have suggested that legalization
of drugs is an idea whose time may have come.
Let’s look at their arguments one by one. But be forewarned; dismantling them
will not take too much time or effort.
“Legalizing drugs would mean the end of drug-related crime.” Presumably it’s
true that if narcotics were legalized, drug lords, pushers, and drug gangs would no longer
reap enormous profits. It does not follow, however, that the addicted would be any less
driven to desperate measures to obtain a fix. To feed their habit, many would obtain
money by resorting to robbery and prostitution. Indeed, as the number of addicts
continued to grow, so would the number of drug-related crimes.
“The government could tax drug sales and regulate the purity of narcotics if they
were sold legally.” The advocates of legalization point out that two other addictive
substances—alcohol and tobacco—are legal and subject to government regulation. True.
But with what results? Alcohol and tobacco combined kill more than half a million
people each year. Illegal drugs leave an even more deadly legacy. Drug abuse has been
linked to many devastating diseases and medical conditions; 55 percent of pediatric AIDS
cases and 36 percent of hepatitis C cases are tied to intravenous drug use. And when
substance abusers are hospitalized for almost any ailment—burns, pneumonia, and blood
poisoning, for example—they recuperate more slowly, remaining in the hospital up to
twice as long as non-abusers for the same conditions. In 1991, substance abuse was
linked to 2.3 million days Americans spent in the hospital, with one-third of those days
involving infants born with complications due to their mothers’ drug abuse during
pregnancy. Would we consider it progress to have more people seriously ill or dying,
more infants suffering, more patients unable to heal because they had injected, inhaled, or
consumed purer forms of poison?
“The war on drugs is simply too expensive and too ineffective. The country can’t
afford to continue spending money at this rate.” No doubt about it, the price tag attached
to fighting drug abuse is phenomenal. It’s estimated that federal, state, and local
governments spend over $8 billion a year on drug enforcement. Add to that the
uncounted billions spent on feeding and housing those imprisoned for drug-related crimes
(more than a third of all federal prisoners fall into this category), and you end up with
some breathtaking sums.
True, the war on drugs is not being won. The courts are overflowing with cases
waiting to be tried. Huge seizures of narcotics stop only a small fraction of the drugs
coming into the country. Countless dragnets snare only the small-time pusher, not the
drug kingpin. Clearly, as it is being waged now, the national fight against drug abuse is
The only thing more costly than continuing the current war on drugs would be the
legalization of narcotics; such a measure would claim innumerable human lives.
Government figures estimate that crimes involving drug use cost society more than $58
billion a year. Substance abuse is linked with 52 percent of rapes committed; 49 percent
of murders; 62 percent of assaults; and 50 percent of traffic fatalities and incidents of
spousal abuse. The legalization of narcotics could only push those figures higher.
Currently, drug abuse costs American industry as much as $100 billion per year in
lost productivity, liability for errors committed by substance-abusing employees, and
drug-related injuries. Imagine how that figure would soar if legal restraints were
removed. If people didn’t have to drive into a seedy neighborhood…if they didn’t risk
arrest and disgrace…if they could justify their actions as legal…how many could resist
trying drugs “just once”? And how many addicts started out by experimenting with drugs
“just once”? Every one of them, that’s how many. Moreover, what would be the fate of
addicts if narcotics were available legally? In the words of one cocaine addict, “I’d be
dead…I’d just sit down with a big pile of the stuff and snort it until I dropped.”
One more number to consider: Today, the health costs of treating drug abuse are
estimated at $65 billion per year. Care to guess what that figure might become if drugs
were made legal?
Aren’t these facts enough to dissuade anyone from believing that the legalization
of narcotics has anything to recommend it? Why, then, would anyone recommend
legalization? The answer has to do with racism, elitism, and sheer indifference to the
suffering of others. “These people are going to kill themselves anyway,” many middle-
class Americans reason. “I’m not going to have my tax dollars used to try to save them.
Besides, what does it matter if drugs wipe out a generation—as long as it’s a generation
of black and Hispanic kids?”
If you doubt that this kind of thinking is pervasive, consider the public
indifference to the last decade’s gutting of education and job-training programs. Such
programs address the major causes of drug abuse: poverty and despair. When the number
of families living beneath the poverty level increased more than sixfold between 1979
and 1993, did more fortunate Americans protest? Who objected when federal funds for
low-income housing dropped from $32 billion to $7 billion between 1981 and 1993?
There was little public protest when federal aid for public education decreased by nearly
$6 billion in the 1980s. Nor did the average American complain when funding of job-
training programs dropped by $42 billion from 1981 to 1993. And the minimum wage,
despite a recent increase, has fallen to its lowest level in terms of buying power since
1955. Is it any wonder that poor teenagers choose the lucrative jobs offered by drug lords
over the chance to flip hamburgers at a fast-food restaurant? Given the harshness of their
lives, it’s not surprising that the underprivileged have turned to drugs in such massive
The nation’s devastating drug problem illustrates that our country is reaping what
it has sowed: a harvest of poverty, violence, and despair. That the problem has grown to
this extent is immoral in itself; to encourage it further through the legalization of
narcotics would be not only impractical but also unethical. Unless this once-great country
acts quickly to address the drug problem in the only way that can work—through
providing real education, more affordable housing, and greater employment
opportunities—it will truly deserve comparison with cities that suffered the fate of fire
One of this country’s best-known attorneys, Louis Nizer (1902-94) shared
his legal expertise and courtroom experiences in such best-sellers as My
Life in Court (1961), The Jury Returns (1966), and Reflections Without
Mirrors (1978). Portions of his books have been adapted for the theater,
cinema, and television. Respected for his lucid prose style, Nizer wrote for
such diverse publications as the New York Times, Reader’s Digest,
McCall’s, and numerous scholarly legal journals. In addition to being a
skilled attorney, author, and lecturer, Nizer was an accomplished painter
and composer. The following essay was first published in the New York
Times in 1986.
Low-Cost Drugs for Addicts?
Drug addiction and drug-related crimes cost the nations millions of dollars
and thousands of lives each year. Louis Nizer argues that many of the ills
associated with drug use exist only because narcotics are illegal.
Legalizing drugs, he contends, would sharply reduce what many believe is
the number one problem facing our nation today.
We are losing the war against drug addiction. Our strategy is wrong. I propose a
The Government should create clinics, manned by psychiatrists, that would
provide drugs for nominal charges or even free to addicts under controlled regulations. It
would cost the Government only 20 cents for a heroin shot, for which the addicts must
now pay the mob more than $100, and there are similar price discrepancies in cocaine,
crack and other such substances.
Such a service, which would also include the staff support of psychiatrists and
doctors, would cost a fraction of what the nation now spends to maintain the land, sea and
air apparatus necessary to interdict illegal imports of drugs. There would also be a
savings of hundreds of millions of dollars from the elimination of the prosecutorial
procedures that stifle our courts and overcrowd our prisons. We see in our newspapers the
triumphant announcements by Government agents that they have intercepted huge caches
of cocaine, the street prices of which are in the tens of millions of dollars. Should we be
gratified? Will this achievement reduce the number of addicts by one? All it will do is
increase the cost to the addict of his illegal supply.
Many addicts who are caught committing a crime admit that they have mugged or
stolen as many as six or seven times a day to accumulate the $100 needed for a fix. Since
many of them need two or three fixes a day, particularly for crack, one can understand the
terror in our streets and homes. It is estimated that there are in New York City alone
200,000 addicts, and this is typical of cities across the nation. Even if we were to assume
that only a modest percentage of a city’s addicts engage in criminal conduct to obtain the
money for the habit, requiring multiple muggings and thefts each day, we could
nevertheless account for many of the tens of thousands of crimes each day in New York
Not long ago, a Justice Department division issued a report stating that more than
half the perpetrators of murder and other serious crimes were under the influence of
drugs. This symbolizes the new domestic terror in our nation. This is why our citizens are
unsafe in broad daylight on the most traveled thoroughfares. This is why typewriters and
televisions sets are stolen from offices and homes and sold for pittance. This is why parks
are closed to the public and why murders are committed. This is why homes need
multiple locks, and burglary systems, and why store windows, even in the most
fashionable areas, require iron gates.
The benefits of the new strategy to control this terrorism would be immediate and
First, the mob would lose the main source of its income. It could not compete
against a free supply for which previously it exacted tribute estimated to be hundreds of
millions of dollars, perhaps billions, from hopeless victims.
Second, pushers would be put out of business. There would be no purpose in
creating addicts who would be driven by desperate compulsion to steal and kill for the
money necessary to maintain their habit. Children would not be enticed. The mob’s
macabre public-relations program is to tempt children with free drugs in order to create
customers for the future. The wave of street crimes in broad daylight would diminish to a
trickle. Homes and stores would not have to be fortresses. Our recreational areas could
again be used. Neighborhoods would not be scandalized by sordid street centers where
addicts gather to obtain their supply from slimy merchants.
Third, police and other law-enforcement authorities, domestic or foreign, would
be freed to deal with traditional nondrug crimes.
There are several objections that might be raised against such a salutary solution.
First, it could be argued that by providing free drugs to the addict we would
consign him to permanent addition. The answer is that medical and psychiatric help at the
source would be more effective in controlling the addict’s descent than the extremely
limited remedies available to the victim today. I am not arguing that the new strategy will
cure everything. But I do not see many addicts being freed from their bonds under the
In addition, as between the addict’s predicament and the safety of our innocent
citizens, which deserves our primary concern? Drug-induced crime has become so
common that almost every citizen knows someone in his immediate family or among his
friends who have been mugged. It is these citizens who should be our chief concern.
Another possible objection is that addicts will cheat the system by obtaining more
than the allowable free shot. Without discounting the resourcefulness of the bedeviled
addict, it should be possible to have Government cards issued that would be punched so
as to limit the free supply in accord with medical authorization.
Yet all objections become trivial when matched against the crisis itself. What we
are witnessing is the demoralization of a great society: the ruination of the school
children, athletes and executives, the corrosion of the workforce in general.
Many thoughtful sociologists consider the rapidly spreading drug use the greatest
problem that our nation faces—greater and more real and urgent than nuclear bombs or
economic reversal. In China, a similar crisis drives the authorities to apply capital
punishment to those who trafficked in opium—an extreme solution that arose from the
deepest reaches of frustration.
Free drugs will win the war against the domestic terrorism caused by illicit drugs.
As a strategy, it is at once resourceful, sensible and simple. We are getting nowhere in
our efforts to hold back the ocean of supply. The answer is to dry up demand.