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Why Good Parents Should Support Drug Legalization

As an ex-junkie, I know how harmful addiction is. As a father, I want to protect my daughter from harm. Making all drugs legal will help.

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By Tony O'Neill

04/18/13

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A friend of mine used to laugh when I said I was in favor of legalizing all drugs. He just couldn’t fathom such a position. He told me that if they legalized drugs, “It would take all of the fun out of it.”

Three years after he died of a heroin overdose, I wonder whether he’d be alive now if drugs had been legal.

As a father, I sometimes find myself on the receiving end of an argument that’s a perennial favorite of the hardened drug warrior: Why would I, the father of a nine-year-old girl, advocate for a society awash with legally available drugs?

The answer is simple: My daughter is already growing up in a society in which illegal drugs are easier to procure than alcohol. Unlike the guy behind the counter of my local liquor store, I’ve never known a drug dealer who checked IDs.

Of course, as an ex-addict, the idea of my daughter using drugs is disquieting. But let’s be honest: The idea of her dating boys is disquieting. I’m not about to campaign to ban co-ed schools. It is hard to remain detached and logical when I’m talking about the little girl I tuck into bed every night. But I truly believe that ending prohibition would protect her, not expose her to harm.

A relapse isn’t something that can be prevented by legislation. But at least when alcoholics relapse they don’t risk death from drinking contaminated bathtub hooch.

The horrors of drug addiction are the last thing I’d ever want her to experience. But if it did happen, I’d prefer it to happen in a society that treated addiction as a medical issue, rather than a reason to lock her up. And frankly, I’m more at ease with the idea of her smoking a joint when she’s old enough, rather than exposing herself to the greater potential harms of alcohol. That doesn't mean I'm going to head off with her to my local 420 rally this weekend.

Maybe it’s easier for me than most parents because the cat, as it were, is already out of the bag. I've written about my experiences with heroin and crack in great detail in my books. She'll no doubt read them when she's old enough. But even without the paper trail, I've always felt that I have a duty to be honest with my daughter about drugs. Especially when she's growing up in a society that will be bombarding her with politically motivated propaganda via police-led “educational” programs like DARE, and a media that often prefers hysteria and controversy to cold hard facts.

I truly believe that we're moving toward a society in which it is no longer acceptable to persecute drug users, and it's my duty to prepare my child for that.

The movement to legalize marijuana is gathering unprecedented momentum. In the US, it’s now legal in two states for adults to buy pot just like tobacco or alcohol. In many other states, all it takes is a doctor’s prescription. There is a steady shift in public attitudes to the War on Drugs: According to one recent poll, only one in five Americans feels it has been worth the cost. Suddenly, it seems everything is up for grabs.

Taking a stand against prohibition—whether by how we vote, where we donate or simply being “out and proud” about our beliefs—is one thing that our unique, fractured and excluded community should do with one voice. If we don’t, others will make their own assumptions about where we stand. 

Addiction and recovery issues have for years been moving out of the shadows and into the media spotlight. Celebrities openly discuss going to rehab; in a weird way, recovery has become trendy. We can seize this high profile to speak out against the injustices of the drug war.

My introduction to activism came in London a decade ago. I was on the methadone program at Homerton Hospital and my doctor was giving me hell. He wanted to wean me off immediately. While I was open to the idea of detoxing—in my own time—I knew that if the clinic started weaning me off just weeks into the program, I was going to be back on the needle at the end of it.

That terrified me. Because methadone—which gets a pretty bad rap—saved my life. It gave me enough breathing space to finally look at my situation. And I didn’t like what I saw. I began to believe that maybe I could try a life without heroin at its center. But I could see this potential new life slipping away after an immediate attempt at detox.

Somehow I got in touch with a fellow called Bill Nelles at the Methadone Alliance, and to this day I thank the stars I did. Bill argued my case with the clinic; pulled out pages of evidence in favor of high-dose maintenance from men way smarter and more experienced than my doctor. Eventually my clinic capitulated. Within a year I was able to wean myself off without their help.

Bill’s advocacy was a powerful lesson. With his help, I soon immersed myself in groups like The National Drug Users Development Agency. I went from feeling utterly disempowered to realizing that even junkies, society’s outcasts, could wield enormous power, if we only fought smart and stuck together.

When I quit dope and left England I lost touch with a lot of my advocate friends. But what we were fighting for—equality, decent treatment and an end to our persecution—is still a major concern of mine. And these goals are irrefutably tied to the question of legalization.

People who have never experienced addiction often express some confusion on this issue. They feel that we, as current, recovering or ex-addicts, should be fighting against legalization. After all, drugs have wreaked havoc in our lives: Why on earth would we want them legal?

We want them legal for the same reason that few ex-alcoholics are in favor of banning booze. The legality of the substance is not the issue; the availability of it is. Prohibited or not, trillion-dollar drug war spend or not, drugs remain readily available all over the globe—in small towns, big cities, schools and even prisons.

A relapse isn’t something that can be prevented by legislation. But at least when alcoholics relapse they don’t risk death from drinking contaminated bathtub hooch. Many of the tangible harms of addiction come from the illegality of substances we use—the prohibitive cost, the uncertain quality and the legal risks involved in procuring our substance of choice. 

You must know by now that the current approach has failed. A century of prohibition has resulted in a wider proliferation of drugs than ever, sold by criminal organizations so powerful and well funded that they hold the power to topple governments. This “war” has done nothing to stop people taking drugs. The only people who benefit are drug dealers and the profiteers in the prohibition industry.

It's all well and good for us to rally around “safer”—albeit crucial—causes, like better and more accessible drug treatment, ending the stigmatization of drug users, and developing new and more effective medications to help break the cycle of addiction. But even these issues fail to get to the root of the problem. The addiction community's number one priority has to be convincing the powers that be to end drug prohibition. Only when drug use is classified as a medical rather than a legal issue can resources finally be focused on helping to solve, not worsen, our problems. 

Drugs are either illegal or they’re not. Drug users are either criminals or they're not. There is no “third way,“ and "compassionate prohibition” is an oxymoronWe have a moral imperative to speak out.

Addicts and former addicts—drinkers, smokers, IV drug users or whatever—are anything but a homogenous bunch. While undergoing treatment I shared a room with a crack-smoking bank manager and a meth-shooting ex-hooker who’d changed gender twice. During the time I once spent in the rooms, I sat alongside priests, actors, gangbangers, businessmen, housewives, prostitutes and pilots. The only thing binding this ragtag group together is an obsession for narcotics.

Sometimes we agree; sometimes we scream at each other. We may be using actively or moderately; we may have quit via the 12 Steps, CBT, free will, religion or some other way. We might not like each other; we might not agree on a single issue politically or socially. But we do have a shared, collective experience.

We know that a life spent as a slave to a substance isn’t glamorous or fun. And when we’re at our lowest ebb, no law on the books can cause us the kind of hurt and pain that we heap upon ourselves; we need support, not persecution.

Drug prohibition should be our top priority also because it has the greatest potential to unite us: 12-step, non-12-step and anything in-between. AA “neither endorses nor opposes any causes.” But that doesn’t mean that those who are in the program should also remain silent. We should be getting involved with organizations like MPP and LEAP. We should be talking to our families, our friends and our peers about this. We should be putting pressure on politicians.

We’ve long had the experience and the knowledge; now we have the momentum, too. For ourselves, for our kids, for the countless others who will follow in our footsteps down the dark path of chemical dependence, let's make it count. 

Tony O'Neill is the author of several novels, including Digging the VeinDown and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City. He is the co-author of the New York Times bestseller Hero of the Underground (with Jason Peter) and the Los Angeles Times bestseller Neon Angel (with Cherie Currie).  He lives in New York with his wife and daughter. 

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