Making drugs legal not a fix, say ex-users

December 12, 2007|By JAY HANCOCK

Legalize drugs? That's what I advocated in this space a month ago. By allowing licensed clinics to sell or dispense hard drugs, we could take business away from violent dealers and let rationality and regulated economics rule the streets instead of robbery and murder.

Not so fast, say people who really know about heroin supply and demand. The hard-drug trade, say former patrons, doesn't have much to do with rationality.

"I don't think that's going to stop the dealers from dealing," says Felicia, 47, a recovering addict who notes that even legalized methadone is bought and sold on the streets. "It may slow it down some. But there's always going to be someone out there that's going to sell to me. Always."

A full discussion of selling Bad Azz heroin (named after a rap album) like Johnnie Walker scotch should include those who have copped a dime bag on the corner. I asked Felicia and two other recovering addicts at Man Alive's Lane Treatment Center on Maryland Avenue - Ronnie, 46, and Shari, 35 - about the pros and cons of legalization. This is their column.

Their first point is that drug use is more than sticking a needle in your arm or a crack pipe in your mouth. "It ain't about the using," said one. "It's about the getting."

Drugs are part of a way of life - robbery, gangs, prostitution - that would persist even if the delivery method changed, the women said. "Addiction is not just getting high," said Felicia, who like the other addicts isn't especially proud of her past and didn't want her last name used. "It's the whole thing - copping [buying on the street], stealing, whatever you do."

Alcohol is legal, but "people out there will rob for a fifth of liquor because they can't get a dollar and 50 cents," she said. "They steal, they trick. They do the same thing. I've got friends that will go out there and hustle harder than me for a drink." Methadone also is legal, but plenty of methadone patients who are clean of heroin still break the law, she said.

Legalization wouldn't eliminate illegal dealing, the women suggested. Heroin and cocaine fuel a multimillion-dollar economy that supports much of the inner city. Under legalization, "even people that don't use [are] going to find a way to get it, and they're going to sell it" - possibly to kids, said Ronnie. "Somebody's going to find a way to make a profit off the government."

"You're not going to give up this way of making money," said Felicia. "There's too much money in this stuff for it to become legal. They don't want to give up their cut."

And legal dispensation of hard drugs might not sate a citywide craving. Fearful of overdoses, legal clinics will know when to say when. But of course demand for addictive drugs goes way beyond medical guidelines, which could keep the corner bazaar alive.

"So I'm going to go and get this free drug that the government is going to put out there," said Ronnie. "Now if it's good, and I like it, what am I supposed to do now? I don't know how many times a day they're going to give it out. Is it just that one time, or what?"

And if heroin and coke are legalized, what about Ecstasy? What about crystal meth?

"You're never satisfied," said Felicia. "I don't care if they give it to you. You're always going to want more."

Legalization certainly wouldn't reduce the population of addicts. Quite the opposite. Shari has two teenage boys. The misery they have witnessed caused by heroin and cocaine - including the recent overdose death of her stepfather - will keep them off drugs, she believes.

But what about other kids? She pauses a long time. "That's hard to say." Legalization might remove drugs' forbidden-fruit allure, she says, but she's not sure.

Legalization won't stop addicts' risky behavior, all three women warned. "If they're giving it to you, you're still going to find a way of sharing a cook or a needle," said Felicia. "Or unprotected sex. That's not going to stop that." They also worried that legal purveyors might increase addiction by advertising or boosting potencies.

Completely legalizing hard drugs has been much discussed but never done, although Switzerland and a few other countries allow legal, "medicalized" injection of heroin for the worst addicts. The policy has been linked to reduced crime.

Any nation trying it would encounter devilish complications, several of which the recovering addicts at Man Alive identified. Policy could address their concerns - steer dealers into new careers, require on-premise drug consumption to prevent resale, beef up addiction treatment programs. But terrible unintended consequences would no doubt remain.

Even so, we need to try something different. If by legalizing addictive drugs we fuel the forces of irrationality, would that be less irrational than what we're doing now?

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