Nelson Rockefeller thought he figured out the secret code. Everybody knew that drugs were bad, evil, destructive, but nobody knew how to stop them. They had been seen as a social and public health issue, but that failed to stem the tide, so Rocky chose to address them as a law enforcement problem, one to be dealt with harshly.
The rationale made complete sense: make the punishment for drugs so harsh, so Draconian, that no one would risk such ridiculous penalties, either to make a few bucks or to get his next fix. The only flaw in the theory was that it failed miserably. It turned out that neither drug dealers or addicts saw it as Rocky did, as law enforcement did, and so it changed nothing.
The Rockefeller Drug laws were enacted in 1973. Not only does the drug problem remain, but we’ve endured several iterations of it since. The current flavor is the opioid epidemic, and much like the crack epidemic, people are dying. Cue the syllogism, as something must be done.
North Carolina saw 2,323 people die from opioid and other drug overdoses in 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated, nearly double the number who died in car crashes. That total rose 14.5 percent from 2016 — one of the most dramatic increases in the country.
The scope of the crisis — both the numbers killed and the socio-economic lines the fatalities cross — put opioid drugs in a different class, said Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman.
One of the most curious aspects of the current crisis is that it’s not primarily a minority problem, black guys dying in back alleys in the ghetto. There was never any sincere doubt that white people used drugs just like black people, but their bodies weren’t found lifeless on the streets. Now they are, which significantly raises the stakes for government to deal with the “problem.” And ignoring the lessons of history, they’ve latched onto a new scheme.
Given the deaths and the media attention these drugs have drawn, she said, it is harder for a drug dealer to plead ignorance about the risks — especially with prior arrests. Some cases are cloudy. Multiple drugs may be involved in an overdose, and they might have come from different places. But with opioids, it is easier for prosecutors to draw a direct line between a sale and a death.
There was never a question of “drug dealer[s] plead[ing] ignorance about the risks,” and this is sheer fantasy. These are drugs, whether cocaine, heroin or a synthetic analogue. The dealers sold it. The users bought it. Often, they were both the same person. And nobody shot junk into their veins because they thought it was good for them.
So history repeated itself, because it was simple narrative, sold hard over the decades since Rocky took the plunge, and provided a “solution” to the “something must be done” syllogism. Rather than try dealers for dealing, they were now murderers if the user overdosed. Even if they just shared, they were murderers. Someone died. Someone must pay.
In April 2016, Cindy Patane found her son unconscious in his bedroom, needles on the table nearby, beaten by a disease he could not conquer.
After years of struggle to stay clean, including a six-month stay at a halfway house, Matt Eyster ground up and injected Opana, a synthetic opioid so powerful and addictive it is no longer sold by pharmaceutical companies. The drug left him brain dead at 21.
In their last moments together before Matt was taken off life support, Patane pressed her forehead to her son’s face as he breathed through a tube.
A tragic story. They’re all tragic stories, because if they weren’t, nobody would use them to sell their narrative. Some of the tragic stories are about the poor kid who struggled to stay clean. Others about the tragic story of the guy in prison for life for trying to survive, his children hungry and the cycle repeating itself. But the sad story of Cindy Patane sheds no tears for the prisoners because her son is dead.
But for mothers such as Patane, nothing but a murder charge could fit the crime.
“That’s the only way you can fix it,” said Patane, a second-grade teacher with two other children. “You just want accountability. Somebody did this to my boy. Just because Matt made a bad choice doesn’t make your crime less of a crime. Matt had consequences. She should have consequences as well.”
It’s hard to blame Patane for feeling as she does. A mother lost her child, and no one can question the pain she must feel for her loss. But when she calls for “accountability,” what does that mean? When she absolves her son, and herself, from accountability by saying “just because Matt made a bad choice,” does that increase accountability for the person who sold her son drugs? Is it not sufficient that the dealer be accountable for dealing? Are the consequences her son suffered, death, the measure of his dealer’s consequences?
But more to the point, does this sad story provide a useful solution to the problem? Even if it assuages her pain, will it do anything to end the problem or just put people in prison for longer periods while new people pick up the slack. As long as people want to buy drugs, someone will sell drugs.
The current thrust of reform against the failed War on Drugs is to return to the days when it was understood to be a social and health problem. But as Nelson Rockefeller found, that didn’t stop people from using, or selling, drugs. History is a bitch.
Unless we’re prepared to accept the premise that illegal drug use can’t be stopped, and the best we can do is to make it as safe as possible with “safe injection sites,” greater availability of rehabilitation for those seeking to end their addiction and eliminating prison sentences as a solution since they double down on the harm rather than eradicate it, we’re fresh out of answers.
But even if we do adopt measures designed to make the solutions less carceral and more about health and saving lives, there will be people addicted to drugs and there will be people selling them drugs. And there will be overdoses, dead children and mothers who demand that something must be done. Hard as we may wish, believe, this shouldn’t be the case, experience proves that people will still be people, with all their foibles, fragility and poor choices.
The only question becomes whose sad stories you prefer, the ones about the poor marginalized miscreants in prison for life plus cancer or the ones about the good boy gone bad with his struggle with addiction, ultimately ending in his death.
Don’t ask me for the answer. I don’t have one. But when you read the sad stories, remember that there’s one for every tragedy, and much as they may bring tears to your eyes for one side, the other side has a sad story of its own.