Are We Fighting Addiction, or Just Illegal Drugs?

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

money drugs
About three-quarters of the way into Adrian Grenier, Bert Marcus, and Matthew Cooke’s documentary How to Make Money Selling Drugs, the camera cuts to a hilarious and surprisingly poignant comedy routine. “They wanna get you hooked on some legal sh*t!” Chris Rock says of the pharmaceutical industry. “They just keep on naming symptoms until they name the one you…got. It’s like, ‘Are you sad? Are you lonely? You got athletes foot?…You gotta take this pill!’”

Rock’s characteristically irreverent anecdotes touched on an inconvenient truth: the abuse of legal prescription drugs has skyrocketed in recent years and yet those who fuel the overmedication of America are not considered criminals. On the other hand, the criminalization of illicit drug users and dealers has given the United States the world’s highest incarceration rate. This policy has devastated many disadvantaged communities—and, as the film’s provocative title suggests, it has made some folks very, very rich.

The movie is a mock ten-step guide to making it big in the drug trade—starting with the low-level street dealer and progressing to kingpin and finally, to cartel leader. While the film’s gimmick gets old, it does provide a stark framework for the negative consequences of the War on Drugs with the help of real drug trade insiders such as Bobby Carlton, Brian O’Dea, and Freeway Rick Ross. These folks, along with former police reporter and creator of The Wire David Simon, explain the appeal of drug dealing as a career. Telling someone in inner city Baltimore to “just say no,” Simon explains, “is like saying, ‘Don’t go to work for the only industry that’s hiring.’” Simon maintains that both drug selling and drug busting create careers. For police, the greatest financial incentive comes from drug arrests, not from solving rape or murder cases.

But Drugs isn’t just a tale of cops and dealers. It also tugs at viewer heartstrings by recounting some of the drug war’s tragic effects. College student Rachel Hoffman became a drug informant and was killed when a sting went awry; Hamedah Hassan, who insists she had simply been in a house where a crack cocaine bust occurred, has been in prison since 1993. Hassan’s story in particular highlights the arbitrary nature of the drug war. Had the drug in question been powder cocaine instead of crack, Hassan would be at home with her family today. The film makes a strong case that drug laws need to change to treat all drugs (legal or illegal, crack or cocaine) as health hazards, not crimes.

It’s unfortunate that the film takes so long to bring up the issue of addiction. There are nine minutes left when the narrator first mentions the importance of treatment, and we don’t find out until the end that the vast majority of these ex-dealers are now in recovery. The narrator’s statement that “rehabilitation programs are underfunded and often unavailable” is painfully true and deserves a much stronger call to action.

Still, the film argues persuasively against the War on Drugs and the use of law enforcement to reduce the use of illegal substances. Just suppose it really worked—how many more people would then turn to alcohol and prescriptions to dull pain and get high? People have sought escape through drugs since the dawn of humanity and eliminating certain substances won’t change that desire. As Chris Rock noted, there are plenty of legal substances that are doing damage—no cartel required.

It’s clear that fighting drug supply is a losing battle without also addressing the causes of substance abuse. Recovering addict Maia Szalavitz recently wrote on The Fix that “those who’ve focused on illegal drug issues have tended to seek to stamp out drugs, not addiction.”  She’s absolutely right. Drugs (both legal and illegal) are harmful, but addiction is the real enemy here. To take a page from Matthew Cooke’s ten-step playbook, the steps toward a solution would seem to be simple: 1) Treat non-violent drug users as victims, not criminals; 2) Take the money that would have been spent on incarcerating those individuals, and spend it instead on drug treatment programs and on fighting poverty; 3) Watch as addiction diminishes, drug dealers get “real” jobs, and communities begin to thrive. That’s a three-step guide that we can all agree on.

Kate Schmier and Emma Edelman
Blog Editors
Phoenix House

If you or a loved one needs help for a substance abuse issue, Phoenix House is here for you. Email us or call today at 1 888 671 9392.

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  • John Byrom

    Dear Kate Schmier and Emma Edelman,

    You state, “treat non-violent drug users as victims not criminals”, without some kind of consequences a drug user will not seek treatment until their problem has escalated to a serious point. If drugs are legal and that is what you are saying, drug users have no incentive to seek change. There are millions of individuals who attribute their recovery to what they call “a nudge from the judge”. Your three step plan is simplistic and flawed. If you look at any community that decided to not charge low level drug crimes and I will show you a community with high crime rates and a crumbling economy.

    Also Pheonix House has built it’s program by serving individual that have been referred by courts. No charges, no courts, no Pheonix House. I am very disappointed that this article came from your organization because I know what great work Pheonix House does and you fell into the Drug Policy Alliance, and drug legalizers propaganda. Come out of your office and visit real communities.

    John Byrom
    AOD Enviromental Prevention Specialist

  • eedelman

    Thanks for your feedback, John. You’re right that a “nudge from the judge” can be a motivator; that’s why Phoenix House believes in mandated treatment rather than incarceration:

    Funneling non-violent drug offenders into the prison system merely perpetuates the cycle of criminality. Addiction is a disease, and you can’t cure a disease with handcuffs.

    For more on the Phoenix House perspective on treatment vs. incarceration, click here: