Let me introduce Barbra: 22, pretty, Jewish, sweet. I got to know her last autumn while researching my novel, Topless. Barbra is a go-go dancer. She can earn $1,000 a week, tax free. (Some industri-ous dancers triple that figure.) With Barbra as my chaperone, I traveled the New Jersey and upstate New York topless circuit — areas that were then unknown to me. In payment for her guide service, I supplied transportation, a good tip, and break-fast at 5 a.m. Barbra was living with this guy, Joe. She always insisted we bring him a cheeseburger. I didn't think much about it. I liked Barbra. She was affable, unassuming and street wise. She did sleep a lot in the car, though.
Then, one Sunday afternoon, Barbra phoned me at home. The police were in her apartment. Joe had just threatened to kill her. Would I, she said, take care of her kitten for a while? She had to... go away. I said, Yes. Barbra came through my front door looking anxious and hyper. Everything distracted her. Where was she going away to? Well, Barbra said, she had a little problem... So tell me, I said. Well, her little problem was with...heroin.
You coulda fooled me. I had no idea. I mean, heroin is such an unstylish drug, so 1950s. (Barbra snorted it, she didn't skin-pop.) And, frankly she got along pretty well. She functioned. I thought: Well, at least she'll be rid of Joe, that's good — Joe had first given Barbra heroin when she was 19 — he wanted to make her dependent on him. (He told Barbra it was some cocaine variant.) On Monday she took out an order of protection against Joe and went into the neighborhood methadone program.
That was November. Barbra hasn't kicked heroin yet. It isn't so easy to do, my friends. And, given that circumstance, I was wrong. Dumping Joe hasn't been such a good thing at all. Now, you realize, Barbra will have to score her own heroin. Last time I saw her — fragile, vulnerable, very white, afraid — she was headed to Harlem. One week before, her money had been stolen there. As Barbra went down the subway staircase, she said: "I don't understand. Why do I have to do this? Why won't they let me have any junk?"
"Because," I said, "you live in a stupid country with stupid laws."
Before long Barbra will be beaten or raped or found dead: count on it. Another victory in the great American drug war.
Drugs are bad. But easily the worst thing about them is —they're illegal and (hence) they cost too much. A black addict father with three children, say, doesn't go bankrupt or take up chain-snatching because of heroin or cocaine. It is the grim financial hemorrhage that demoralizes an addict. In this sense our anti-drug stance has callously discriminated against poor people. If I were a liberal, I could make an appealing case for legalization and government support. Rich folk in capitalist America can afford the cost of addiction, I'd say. Liberal Me might even propose Drug Stamps. Addicts, remember, are made desperate and dan-gerous because the substance they crave is illegal, unavailable and expensive.
Addiction of that sort can deplete a culture. Not only has the user been maimed by his chemi-cal dependency, he also is made to feel outlaw and inferior — instead of ill. We guarantee our addict population (people who are victims, really) a felon status by compelling it to purchase illicit material every single day. That doesn't build character. If drugs were were legal, maybe the dude who mugged my son at knifepoint last October would never have left home. I put forward this heretical proposition: drug addicts might function well enough (not as pilot or bus driver, obviously), and contribute something to our culture in the way of work done and children loved, if their drugs were available at cost or below. Barbra, I know, would have been better off. As for the long-term effects — r agree, they are significant, at least as signifi-cant as the long-term effects of cigarette smoking or alcohol. (Joe, almost fifty, has been on heroin since 1960, more than one-quarter century, with only heart inflammation to indicate it. That and complete financial destitution). Societies which tolerate drug addiction may sound slack and un-attractive. Let me instead call them societies which have considerably reduced murder, theft, and catastrophic public expense — while treating their addict segment with kindness, not hostility. That has a better sound....
Drug commerce between one consenting adult and another is nobody else's business. And a free-market mechanism should obtain. Instead, our welfare socialist approach has given monopoly privilege to organized crime by default. Let Squibb and Pfizer manufacture crack: that would be cheaper, safer, and more humane. I think there is a tremendous potential constituency for legaliza-tion in Atnerica — but it is a constituency much intimidated by anti-drug passion and propaganda. Give us one candidate with vision and courage enough to challenge Drug Prohibition. I promise him or her at least a long footnote's worth of immortality.
Meanwhile the addict is persecuted. Ernest van den Haag would've put Barbra in a POW camp. Policemen have their heads blown away. Castro and the mob get richer. Law-observing people are mugged and murdered as urban inner-America slouches toward chaos. Enough: let us confess that Drug Prohibition has been a witless and pathetic misadventure. For God's sake, end it soon.
D. Keith Mano, "Legalize Drugs," May 28, 1990, National Review, Inc., 150 East 35th Street, New York, NY 10016. Reprinted by permission.