Some Basic Problems in Drug Addiction and Suggestions for Research*
by MORRIS PLOSCOWE
The Report to the President of the Inter-Departmental Committee On Narcotics' also stresses the vital importance of severe punishment as a basic means of controlling drug addiction and the drug problem.
"The Committee has arrived at the conclusion that there is need for a continuation of the policy of punishment of a severe character as a deterrent to narcotic law violations. It therefore recommends an increase of maximum sentences for first as well as subsequent offenses. With respect to the mandatory minimum features of such penalties and prohibitions of suspended sentences or probation, the Committee fully recognizes the objections in principle. It feels however that in order to define the gravity of this class of crime and the assured penalty to follow, these features of the law must be regarded as essential elements of the desired deterrents, although some difference of opinion still exists regarding their application to first offenses of certain types."8 These predilections for stringent law enforcement and severer penalties as answers to the problems of drug addiction reflect the philosophy and the teachings of the Bureau of Narcotics. For years the Bureau has supported the doctrine that if penalties for narcotic drug violations were severe enough and if they could be enforced strictly enough, drug addiction and the drug traffic would largely disappear from the American scene. This approach to problems of narcotics has resulted in spectacular modifications of our narcotic drug laws on both the state and federal level. The 84th Congress passed legislation which provided that whoever "receives, conceals, buys or sells" heroin, etc., shall be punished by 5 to 10 years' imprisonment for a first offense. The giving, selling or furnishing of heroin to a person under 18 years of age was made punishable by sentences of 10 years to life or the death sentence if directed by the jury. Legal provisions permitting suspended sentence and probation for violations of the drug laws were struck from the federal statutes.
The states have followed the lead of the Federal Government in strengthening penalties for violations of the drug laws. In California, unlawful possession of narcotics was formerly punishable by a maximum of 6 years in the State prison. A 1953 amendment increased the maximum to 10 years and to 20 years for a second offense. In Illinois, illicit possession of a narcotic drug used to be punished by a maximum of one year in the County jail. It is now punishable by 2 to 10 years in the penitentiary for a first offense, and 5 years to life for subsequent offenses. In Michigan, unlawful possession of narcotic drugs was punishable by a maximum of 4 years imprisonment. At present, such possession is punishable by a maximum of to years for a first offense, 20 years for a second offense, and 29 to 40 years for a third offense. In Ohio, unlawful possession of drugs was punishable by a maximum of 5 years imprisonment. Today, the penalties for unlawful possession as a first offense are 2 to 15 years, for a second offense, 5 to 20 years, and for a third offense, 10 to 30 years. Stringent law enforcement has its place in any system of controlling narcotic drugs. However, it is by no means the complete answer to American problems of drug addiction. In the first place it is doubtful whether drug addicts can be deterred from using drugs by threats of jail or prison sentences. The belief that fear of punishment is a vital factor in deterring an addict from using drugs rests upon a superficial view of the drug addiction process and the nature of drug addiction. This will be apparent from the discussion of the nature and mechanics of drug addiction (see infra). It is also doubtful whether it will be possible to incarcerate indefinitely relapsing, uncured drug addicts as recommended by the Senate Committee. The Committee urged this step because of the fear that incurable drug addicts carry the contagion of drug addiction to others. In order to prevent such contagion, incurable drug addicts must be permanently incarcerated and permanently isolated from the community. There are thousands of men and women in this country who are confirmed drug addicts and who are incurable by present methods and techniques. If the Senate Committee recommendation is to be acted upon, places of detention will have to be set up for these thousands of men and women, by Congress and state legislatures. There is little likelihood that federal and state legislation will provide new places of detention for large numbers of confirmed drug addicts. Men and women may jam our prisons and penitentiaries for alleged violations of the drug laws. But it is not likely that in the foreseeable future there will be any wholesale round-up of chronic and incurable drug addicts for more or less permanent isolation.
Since all confirmed addicts cannot be incarcerated, permanently, there will always be addicts at liberty to serve as customers for an illicit drug traffic. Even where drug addicts are sentenced to penal or correctional institutions, they eventually come out. They may be off the drug when in the institution but they usually relapse to the use of drugs shortly after they are released from institutional confinement. Severe penalties and strict enforcement may deter or discourage some drug peddlers. But there will always be others attracted by the lure of the large profits to be made in the drug traffic. The very severity of law enforcement tends to increase the price of drugs on the illicit market and the profits to be made therefrom. The lure of profits and the risks of the traffic simply challenge the ingenuity of the underworld peddlers to find new channels of distribution and new customers, so that profits can be maintained despite the risks involved. So long as a non-addict peddler is willing to take the risk of serving as a wholesaler of drugs, he can always find addict pushers or peddlers to handle the retail aspects of the business in return for a supply of the drugs for themselves.* Thus, it is the belief of the author of this report that no matter how severe law enforcement may be, the drug traffic cannot be eliminated under present prohibitory repressive statutes.
*It should be noted that on occasion, law enforcement agencies themselves may act as suppliers of drugs to addicts. The greater the pressure upon law enforcement agencies, the greater the necessity of producing arrests in drug cases. Arrests in drug cases cannot be made without information. Stool pigeons or informers are vital suppliers of information. Nobody is better equipped to provide information concerning violations of the narcotic drug laws than the narcotic addict himself. One pays off the stool pigeon in money, in winking at his illegal activity, and in the case of the addict, sometimes in seeing that he obtains his drugs. Thus it has been alleged that the law enforcement agencies that are engaged in enforcing the narcotic laws may themselves see that drugs are supplied to addicts.
Moreover, even if it were [theoretically] possible to eliminate the drug traffic through strict and uniform enforcement of narcotic laws, this objective is practically unrealistic. In the first place, inefficiency in law enforcement is endemic in this country. The causes are many and varied.
Among such causes are inadequate recruiting and training of police officials, lack of specialized expert direction of police departments, political selection of police chiefs and district attorneys, part time and amateur administration in attorney's offices and courts, political selection of judges, lack of coordination between law enforcement agencies, lack of State supervision of local law enforcement, conflicts between uncoordinated law enforcement agencies, inadequacies in the law of arrest, search and seizure, and other branches of procedural law, etc.
Any particular community can overcome the factors contributing to inefficient law enforcement and stage a concerted drive against drug addicts and drug peddlers. Such a drive can result in imprisoning many individuals. But it will also bring about an exodus of drug addicts and drug peddlers to communities where the "heat" is not on, and the law enforcement is a little more lax and lenient. So long as our law enforcement agencies consist of thousands of independent units, there will always be communities where the enforcement of the drug laws will be viewed with relative indifference and where drug addicts and drug peddlers can wait out a flurry of law enforcement in their own communities.
Strict law enforcement and severe penalties are therefore not the easy answers to problems of drug addiction. We must look elsewhere for a rational drug control program for this country. Any such program must be based on a thorough understanding of the phenomenon that we are seeking to control. Failure to understand the nature of the phenomenon of drug addiction and the practical problems involved in controlling it are responsible for the fact that drug addiction has such serious consequences in this country.