The at least 119 people who fatally overdosed in Lorain County this year are the latest casualties in the drug war.
Forty-five years after President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs,” thousands have died but illegal drugs like heroin are more potent than ever, easy to get on the street, and America leads the world with some 2.2 million people imprisoned.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that we lost the war on drugs,” said Dr. Stephen Evans, Lorain County coroner. “If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, well, we need to rethink what we’re doing because it failed.”
Evans said there needs to be greater focus on education to prevent young people from getting hooked on drugs and more treatment if they do. He said there needs to be less focus on enforcement and incarceration.
County prosecutor Dennis Will and sheriff Phil Stammitti made similar remarks recently. While saying they need more money to deal with the heroin epidemic, Will and Stammitti told county commissioners that they county can’t arrest its way out of the problem.
Drug war critics say Nixon launched it on false pretenses. A top Nixon aide agreed.
An April article in Harper’s Magazine based on a 1994 interview with Nixon’s domestic policy adviser, John Ehrlichman, shed light on Nixon’s rationale. Ehrlichman, who died in 1999, said the drug war was a way to punish black people and young people opposed to the Vietnam War.
“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” Ehrlichman said, according to Harper’s. “We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Author Howard Rahtz helped fight the drug war for 20 years. Rahtz was a Cincinnati police officer from 1988 to 2008 and before that worked in a methadone clinic. Rahtz is a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of retired judges, police officers, and prison guards who support ending the drug war by legalizing drugs.
They argue that as long as there is demand for drugs, there will always be a supply. Rahtz said the heroin epidemic is a good example of the failure of the drug war.
“Heroin has never been more powerful, cheaper, and available,” he said. “We keep pretending that we’re doing the right set of things and it’s not working.”
Some countries have had success with legalization. Portugal decriminalized possession of small amounts of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana for personal use in 2001. It now has one of the lowest fatal overdose rates in the European Union, according to European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.
There are three fatal overdoses per million people in Portugal. The EU average is 17.3 per million.
Despite the success, Evans isn’t sure it could work here. He notes Portugal has a far more homogeneous population than the U.S. Portugal, with about 10 million people, is also far smaller than the U.S., which has about 320 million people.
While there has been no push to legalize heroin, some states are legalizing marijuana. Ohio this year legalized medical marijuana but usage details won’t be worked out for at least a year. Evans opposed marijuana legalization because he said it sends the message to young people that a mind-altering drug is OK.
While the majority of people who smoke marijuana don’t go on to use heroin, some do. Evans contends it’s a gateway drug. “It’s a slippery slope and once you start going down that slope, it’s hard to come back,” he said.
Evans said if opioids were legalized, about 20 percent of the population would become drug-dependent and non-functional. He said the rest of the people would have to support them. “Prevention and rehabilitation is where we’re going to get the most bang for our buck,” he said.
Rahtz said studies show medical marijuana reduces fatal overdoses. A 2014 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association studied 13 states with medical marijuana laws. It found they had nearly 25 percent fewer fatal overdoses than states without medical medical marijuana laws.
Given the studies, Rahtz said he’s frustrated marijuana legalization is taking so long in Ohio.
“There doesn’t seem to be any sense of urgency,” he said. “It’s just business as usual.”
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or [email protected]