Why We Must Arrest Drug Addicts
Normalizing and liberalizing drug use resulted in 100,000 drug deaths
The United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC) yesterday announced that 100,000 Americans died from illicit drugs in the 12 month period ending in April, a nearly 30 percent increase from the same period the year before. Progressives blame laws that treat addiction as a criminal rather than public health problem, while conservatives blame lockdowns to covid.
Both sides are wrong. The cause of the 100,000 deaths is the normalization of hard drug use and the liberalization of drug laws. Many of those deaths were of children poisoned after taking what they thought were prescription drugs they had bought from dealers they met through Snapchat. Many others were of addicts who had first gotten hooked on prescription opioids, then switched to heroin, and more recently to fentanyl.
It’s true that covid was partly responsible for the increase, and that America has failed miserably to treat addiction. Many of those drug deaths occurred due to self-medication by people, including homeless people given hotel rooms, who suffered worse mental health problems brought on by isolation created by covid. And America lacks a functioning mental health care system capable of providing people with untreated mental illness and addiction the psychiatric and rehabilitation they need.
But the death toll has been rising gradually from 2000, when just 17,000 people died, to 2020, and the underlying reason is the normalization and liberalization of drug laws. The U.S. liberalized the prescription of opioid pharmaceutical drugs starting in the late 1990s. It’s true that the U.S. tightened prescription regulations in 2010, which is when many opioid addicts turned to heroin. But cities and states also liberalized drug laws, including against open drug scenes in cities, euphemistically referred to as “homeless encampments,” where dealers and buyers meet. And American society has gradually normalized and even glamorized the use of pharmaceutical and hard drugs for 20 years.
If we are going to significantly reduce drug deaths we need to start arresting drug addicts. I’m not suggesting we arrest people who aren’t breaking any laws other than using hard drugs. People who want to kill themselves in the privacy of their own homes by smoking fentanyl should be free to do so. But people who use drugs, camp publicly, and break other laws stemming from their addictions, such as shoplifting, should be arrested, brought before a judge, and be given the choice of rehab or jail.
Many progressives and some conservatives will object to this approach by saying that Portugal, Netherlands, and other European nations handled their addiction crises in the late 1980s differently, but they didn’t. Faced with open drug scenes, Portugal and Netherlands also tried the “helping-only” approach of giving addicts clean needles and offering methadone, an opioid substitute, and failed. Addicts took the needles and methadone, kept shooting heroin in public, and dying. It was only after those nations started arresting addicts and giving them the choice of rehab or jail that lives were saved.
A restaurant owner named Adam Mesnick earlier this week released a video on Twitter of an interview with homeless fentanyl street addict named Diane, 34. She moved to San Francisco from Chicago eight months ago. Diane was crying. “My husband got me started on heroin in 2012,” she said. “I heard they’re starting to put fentanyl in everything because they want people to be addicted to everything.”
Drug decriminalization and “Housing First” advocates say that all we should do to help Diane is to give her a free apartment, needles for shooting and foil for smoking fentanyl, and a place where she can safely use fentanyl. That’s the progressive thing to do, according to San Francisco’s Mayor and Supervisors, who are advocating for a place for addicts to smoke and inject fentanyl. But does that seem like the moral thing to do? Of course it’s not. In fact, it could kill her, in the same way that decriminalization and Housing First policies have contributed to the deaths of 712 people in San Francisco last year.
The moral thing to do is to arrest Diane. Does that sound mean to you? If it does, then you don’t understand addiction, or you’re in denial about its hold over people. In the comments on Twitter to Adam’s video, Jacqui Berlinn, the mother of a fentanyl street addict in San Francisco, said, “She deserves love and compassion mental care and counseling — not needles and foil.” Someone responded, “She has to chose to do that herself. Nobody can force her.” It’s true that Diane has to decide whether to quit fentanyl. But by enforcing our laws against public drug use, we can give Diane the choice of rehab or jail.
Why don’t we? In a word, victimology. That’s the three part idea that a) Diane is a victim; b) victimhood is not a stage on the road to heroism but rather a permanent state; and c) everything should be given and nothing required of victims. According to the progressive victimologists who run San Francisco, and other progressive cities, the laws against public drug use, public defecation, and shoplifting, should not be enforced against Diane because she’s an addict. As a victim, Diane is sacred, and the system is sinful. As such, it is better to let her die from fentanyl than to enforce the law. It’s part of the Woke religion.
It is Woke religion, a.k.a., victimology, which leads progressives to grossly misrepresent Diane’s situation. Progressives insist, against what they say are our lying eyes, that Diane is homeless not because she is addicted to fentanyl but rather because rents in San Francisco are too high. Progressives insist that the homeless on the streets are locals who couldn’t afford the rent, not people who moved to San Francisco because they knew the city would allow them to maintain their addiction at low cost without risk of arrest. And progressives insist that the only moral approach is to help Diane maintain her addiction, and not enforce the laws when she breaks them.
In San Fransicko, I debunk the myths that homelessness is a result of high rents, show that Europe saved lives being lost to addiction by arresting addicts and closing open drug scenes, and explain why victimology leads progressives to maintain what is plainly an immoral situation. The title of the book has two meanings. The sickness I describe is the sickness of untreated mental illness and addiction. But the other sickness, San Fransickness, is the sickness of those in the grip of victimology. It is a sickness unto death, one that leads them to deny the fact that the normalization and liberalization of drugs is killing 100,000 of our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, every year.
It's kind of ironic that Shellenberger admits that there isn't enough mental health treatment available and also advocates locking them up for forced treatment.
"And America lacks a functioning mental health care system capable of providing people with untreated mental illness and addiction the psychiatric and rehabilitation they need."
"But by enforcing our laws against public drug use, we can give Diane the choice of rehab or jail."
If we don't have enough mental health professionals to even treat all the people who volunteer for treatment, how can we possibly treat those who will be forceable treated? I guess we could charitably say that he implicitly supports more mental health spending but I think he should spell that out. It is not clear where the money for this is going to come from.
As a matter of political beliefs and also experience, I don't have a lot of faith in using the power of government to help people. Sometimes it works but usually it doesn't. Last time we locked up mentally ill people we had the abuses of the state hospital system, at least in California. It's probably true that this was better for society than the open air mental wards we see now in our cities. What's not really clear to me at least, is if it was better for those incarcerated for the "crime" of being mentally ill. I can hope that with modern medicine and a big government investment in treating the mentally ill we could have better outcomes. It's a pretty big if though. I do support forced treatment for the worse offenders.
Shellenberger continues on the claim that high rents don't have anything to do with homelessness. Google "Homelessness Rises Faster Where Rent Exceeds a Third of Income" to see what research has to show on this. Also, use your common sense. If rents are $400/mo someone on SSI or making minimum wage can afford rent. Poor people cannot afford $1000/mo. I used to be homeless, living in my car, and working minimum wage at $3.35/hr. I lived in a small town with a depressed economy during a recession, so I could not get full time work. I didn't use drugs, I was just poor. I don't know how many more there are like I was but its a significant numbers. Of course there are many interrelated causes to homelessness, including mental illness and drug addiction. But completely discounting the cost of housing does not make sense. California and NYC lead the country in homelessness and high housing costs are part of the impact. Cities with low rents have far fewer homeless. Granted, there are many cofounding variables so it is hard to unwind them all.
I have a sister who is mentally ill (not a drug addict) and pays for the rent on her $400/month trailer in 29 Palms. She cannot afford to live in SF so she does the logical thing. I am paying her rent right now because she is in jail and doesn't get SSI, but that's another story.
I agree 100% with Micheal that something does need to be done about the disorder on our streets. While violent crime is not really up, there is a sense of public disorder and fear that makes our cities less habitable. We have a right to expect a standard of behavior, at least a minimal one. This should include not threatening people, no violent crimes and no stealing. But people don't poop on the streets because they think it's a great idea at least generally. They poop because they have no choice and it is a biological imperative. Providing enough housing for minimal shelter will make our cities better, though there is no political will to spend the money required. It is not fair to expect only cities to fund this. Drug addiction and mental illness are a nationwide problem and it is true that those suffering tend to end up in our cities for many reasons.
As usual, lots of points of agreement and some disagreement. Thanks for making me think about this in a different light. Your positions are always intelligent and well thought out.
I just found out my brother overdosed on fent so this piece really hits home.
Any ideology that puts addicts on a pedestal cannot produce positive outcomes. Addictive behavior has to be met with a carrot and stick approach. My brother had many weak but well meaning people in his life who couldn’t bear wielding the stick. He’s dead because of his choices but those in his orbit let their fear of having an uncomfortable conversation or being disliked trump being a positive influence.