The Simplest Solution

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.

27 thoughts on “The Simplest Solution

    1. SHG Post author

      Springsteen’s band played regularly at a bar on the boardwalk (meaning, across from the beach) in Asbury Park called the Stone Pony, where they sold five glasses of beer for a dollar. It was a great way to get to meet people, since no one could hold five glasses of beer at the same time and, well, you had to do something with that fifth beer.

      1. Guitardave

        …and you didn’t beg Max (was it Max back then?) to let you sit in for a tune?…
        I heard about the pony back in the day.

        1. SHG Post author

          Sure, compare us to professionals. I have a mug from the Hofbrau Haus in Munchen that I smuggled out in the summer of ’79, despite a very scary Brunhilda at the door. How could I not accept the challenge?

          My German son doubted me. Kidz.

          1. Ross

            Hofbrau Haus, the only place I’ve ever been tear gassed(side effect of a fight nearby). They are serious about the crowd being orderly. Congrats on smuggling out a mug, I had to buy mine in 1976, as they were practically strip searching patrons as they left.

            None of us seems to have the answer to drug abuse. But, if insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, using the criminal justice system to solve the problem is insane.

            1. Hunting Guy

              I went with a girl that wore a trench coat with a rope and some cushions secured around her waist. As the evening went on, she got further and further along with her pregnancy. She walked out with five mugs and looking like she was ten and a half months along.

              Me? I had to buy mine.

      2. Jim Tyre

        Once again, SHG, you show your youth. First time I heard the band was here in CA. Second time was at Student Prince, another Asbury Park bar. Pretty sure that was before Stone Pony existed, positive it was before Clarence Clemons joined the band. (Third time, after Clemons joined, was when they played my college. Possibly the best concert I’ve ever attended.)

        Still, you’ll always top me with the fact that you were at Woodstock. I was on the far side of the country for that.

        1. SHG Post author

          There’s always Altamont. When I was in high school, they used to play Rutgers’ fraternity parties, which we would crash because, well, you know.

  1. Jack

    I’ve always been a fan of a simple solution in the opposite direction, make all recreational drugs legal. Not just decriminalized but outright legal with pharmaceutical companies selling competing brands of cocaine, heroin, meth, and any other chemicals people want to shoot, snort, drink or otherwise consume. I know it’s a pipe dream (appropriate phrase) to think the government would treat people as adults capable of making their own decisions and taking responsibility for their actions, after all some people will make bad decisions and we simply can’t allow that. Much better to throw them in jail and have the government ruin their lives than allow them to ruin their lives all on their own.

    1. Lee

      I prefer the Portuguese solution: Decriminalise the possession and consumption of all illicit substances. But I”m afraid it would threaten the Police/Prison Complex and never happen here.

      1. SHG Post author

        Jack: I wanna go down my rabbit hole.
        Me: Not here.
        You: I wanna go down my rabbit hole.

        What could possibly go wrong?

  2. bill mcwilliams

    Yes, there is. Back in the 70s, the WSJ published an article about white collar junkies in San Francisco. It said that many of them would inject heroin before going to work, then again when they returned home.
    The article said that if heroin was legal, even the most strung out junkie would be able to purchase all of the heroin they needed, for about one dollar a day.

    It might have been in that same article that William F. Buckley said that drugs should be legalized.

    1. SHG Post author

      Assuming that’s true, would it be true for everyone? Enough people? Anecdotes about a few white collar junkies may make a good story, assuming it happened and was remotely true, but it’s not exactly a sound basis for public policy for rational folk.

      1. Jack

        Not everyone can handle alcohol, tobacco, video games or any number of things. Should they be outlawed for everyone? As a sound basis for public policy for rational folk how about starting by assuming most people are rational folk able to make their own decisions like adults.
        Most drug users are regular people who have jobs and otherwise normal lives. You don’t read about them because they don’t get arrested or make the news. For example, cocaine is generally considered a ‘white collar’ drug popular among the more affluent.

        1. SHG Post author

          When I approved your initial comment and let you open the door to the collateral issue of drug legalization, I assumed I regret it. I do.

        2. David

          The question isn’t whether drugs should be legalized or not, but whether *your* argument is shallow and unpersuasive. It is. This is a dumb argument and has no place on a law blog.

          1. Jack

            You find it shallow and unpersuasive that in the supposed land of the free people should be allowed to ingest what they want? How about some additional arguments. In my experience more peoples lives are ruined for being arrested for drugs than from the drugs themselves. In addition much of the harm of illegal drugs comes from the fact that they are illegal and unregulated. Drug deaths would drop if they were available in known purity and dosages. Not to mention ancillary benefits like reduced income for organized crime, eliminating violence from the drug trade, increased revenue from drug taxes pared with huge savings in law enforcement and prisons. The only positive to keeping drugs illegal is some people will be dissuaded from trying them. Is that really worth the cost in crime, violence, ruined lives, overcrowded prisons, the cost of policing and incarceration, and deaths from unregulated drugs?

            1. SHG Post author

              If the War on Drugs hadn’t been a massive failure with extreme costs, there wouldn’t be a question. But that’s what raises the question. It doesn’t answer the question, which is why your grasp is shallow and unpersuasive. This is a law blog, and the people here deal with all of this in real life. You belong at reddit, not here. Now you’re done.

      2. KP

        Surely rational folk would say you own your body to do with as you like.. Suicide is just as fine as any other choice, and if we were stepping over junkies and dead bodies in the gutter a lot more young people would have a better idea of the risks involved.

        If we’re going to run around making laws based on feels and clean up every OD in hospital then we will end up where we are… oh wait, that’s not rational!

        Anyone know how Portugal is going?? They legalised drugs a few years ago I believe.

        1. SHG Post author

          When the guy driving the car next to you is on opioids, it’s no longer just about what he does to his body, but what he does to your kids’ lives. It’s not up to you to decide whether their lives are at risk. You may be willing, but are they?

          1. Jack

            This argument works just as well alcohol. Should we ban booze? The question is ‘Why your drug of choice is ok but others are not?’

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