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Losing the Peace with Drugs
December 30, 2020
by William P. Meyers

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Homeless, hallucinating, and hurting people in Seattle

Tuesday morning a building housing six small businesses burned down in my neighborhood. The investigation determined it was purposefully set. The building is a block away from a homeless camp, actually an array of homeless camps, occupying nearby parks. Mentally disturbed, likely homeless people often hang around the building on the back side of the building where the fire started. A witness saw a group of burglars emerge from one of the shops just prior to the fire. Burglars may or may not be homeless, but they are often addicts. Then again, sometimes landlords burn their buildings down to collect insurance. We will probably never know who did it or why.

Only a week before, further from my neighborhood, the Seven Gables Theatre burned down in Seattle's University District. It had been closed for over a year, but neighbors reported homeless people had occupied it.

There are many reasons to be homeless in Seattle. Ridiculously high rents have been caused by the "progressive" city council allowing new businesses to add office space for a decade while not seeing to it that sufficient new housing units were built to accommodate all the newcomers. Seattle did enact a $15 minimum wage, but if you are lucky enough to have full time work, $30,000 a year does not qualify you to rent an apartment. So some of the homeless just could not afford rent, or found that living in a tent with money to spend was better than living in a apartment with no discretionary budget. A brief period of unemployment, or unusual bill that can't be blown off, can put you in the streets of Seattle.

But anyone denying the drug problems among the homeless (which would be most homeless advocacy groups and Seattle citizens who like feeling progressive) is out of touch with reality. Not all homeless people take drugs (here I include alcohol), and not all recreational drug users are homeless. But talk to enough homeless people and you will find most use drugs when they can get them and drug use was a contributing factor to becoming homeless (blowing off a job, or getting thrown out by family, friends, or landlords for destructive behavior). Mentally ill people who refuse to take their meds form a significant minority of homeless people, but they can get into the disability system if they want to, and often were already in it at some point.

Many words have the disadvantage of unfairly uniting a broad array of things. Recreational drugs are not all alike, and neither are their users. Within the last week I have had a glass of wine. I have known people who could knock back a fifth of hard liquor daily and still function quite well (these were lawyers, but I presume it is true of all professions). But if you don't know someone who has gone off the rails using alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, speed, heroin or some variant, you must be a hermit or not paying attention.

Seattle participated in the War on Drugs, and lost. Right now it is trying Peace with Drugs, and it is losing the peace. Certain Drugs are like Hitler. Give him back the Rhineland, and he wants German speaking areas of Austria and Czechoslovakia. Give him those, and he invades Poland, then France, then Russia. It is time for Progressives to wrap their head around the idea and come up with a more workable strategy.

In Seattle they still occasionally bust a major drug wholesaler, but the police and justice system do not bother users or street-level dealers. Not for coke, not for crystal meth, not for opioids. Courts have declared a homeless person's tent to be his castle, so police cannot go inside without a warrant, and no judge is going to issue a warrant for someone who is dealing dime bags. Gangs and entrepreneurs have taken advantage of this. Some now keep apartments, but deal out of tents.

Some people have convinced themselves that drugs are not harmful, despite the occasional opioid death by overdose or crystal meth heart attack or random crazed murder. They believe putting people in prison is harmful. Often these people are light drug users, and when a heavy drug using friend goes under, they pretend it did not happen.

I was a closely-watched kid, so I did not take an illegal drug until I was 17, in 1972, and was off at college. In a car on the way to a water polo game in New York City the older boys passed a joint of marijuana around, and I toked up. Possession of even small amounts of marijuana was a felony in most states in that era, yet people had not stopped smoking when the 60s ended. Cops became the enemy. The War on Drugs seemed evil, like the War in Vietnam. Getting weed and hiding it was a bit of a thrill.

Somehow I heard about NORML and made legalizing drugs, particularly marijuana, part of my political creed. After all, while I had heard excessive alcohol use could be bad for your health, I knew that the organized crime that came with Prohibition was a bigger problem. Or so the history books said.

Looking deeper into history, consider the collapse of China in the 1800s. There were many variables involved, but China went from having the world's largest economy in 1800 to being impoverished and in chaos in 1900. Failing to keep up with Europe, and later America and Japan, in manufacturing and military skills played a large part. But so did the greatly expanded use of opium. The drug was illegal in 1800 and used mostly by the elderly. The British wanted Chinese goods, but had little to trade that the Chinese wanted. They started smuggling in opium, then fought the Opium Wars to force China to legalize the trade. A large segment of the Chinese population became addicted, contributing to economic decline and civil chaos.

Any reasonable analyst would predict that the Peace with Drugs will get worse. It is easy to get addicted, hard to stop. At the beginning stages of addiction most people are able to continue working and paying for their drugs and homes, but most will eventually screw up. Fortunately some people learn their lesson after the first bout, but most don't. Also, once experienced with drugs, outside events may tip one back into using.

Marijuana advocates often argued that if their drug of choice was legal, the use of other drugs would fall off. Alcohol is legal to buy in Seattle, and marijuana as well. But I see no decrease in hard drug use; if anything, judging by the number of people dying from opioid, cocaine and crystal meth overdoses, it has become more common.

The secondary effects of widespread use of addictive drugs can undermine society, as happened with opium in China and with the drug production and distribution businesses of Mexico, Afghanistan, and other areas. In Seattle, so far, the effects have been limited. Theft is common, especially if you include shoplifting, but muggings are still unusual. I have lived in East Coast cities when mugging was common, notably New York City in the early 1980s when two of my friends were mugged within a few weeks of each other. Living in fear of muggers is not pleasant. I suspect the main reason we don't see more muggings in Seattle is not because drug addicts are unwilling to go that far, but because so few people carry cash any more. There are well-oiled organizations that convert shoplifted goods into cash in Seattle, and you can do it yourself with an internet auction site.

Legalizing (for practical purposes) street dealing in Seattle does not stop the flood of drugs from causing violence and oppression in Mexico. Likely the only thing that will stop that is the U.S. government legalizing these drugs and allowing them to be dispensed in the U.S., by doctors or clinics.

For opium derivatives that makes more sense than for uppers like crystal meth. Give an opium addict their dose, and they won't bother you until they want another. But give out methamphetamine and chances are sooner or later the user will attack another human being if they don't collapse their own body first.

I don't think the drug problem can be solved. It is not even clear how to optimize it. Having more and better rehab facilities certainly would help. But keeping people from having their first taste of alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, oxy or meth would be best. Churches have tried to do that, with little success. I think a lot of honesty would go a long way. Admitting the Peace with Drugs is not going to work, and neither will returning to the traditional War on Drugs, would be a good next step for our society.

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