At an International AIDS Conference in Vienna the other day, the participants stumbled upon a stunningly obvious truth. They said that one of the biggest contributors to the spread of the HIV virus is the fact that recreational drugs are illegal.

Nominally, the conference was about addressing the rapidly growing AIDS epidemic among Eastern European drug addicts, and any way they looked at it, it came down to this: drug addicts cannot legally obtain clean hypodermic syringes, and so they share them, and in the process pass on any diseases they have.

The conference called the 50 year-old War on Drugs a failure, about 49 years after it became obvious to anyone with eyes and a brain that this war, like any other war, killed a whole lot of people. The fact that most of the slain individuals were users of recreational drugs was just fine with a lot of people, those who had bought into the demonization of drug users, an odd concept in a world that embraces the widespread use of the most damaging and deadly intoxicant known to man, alcohol.

From 1919 to 1933, The United States of America provided the world with the model of what not to do about alcohol abuse when it passed the 18th Amendment to our Constitution, prohibiting the sale and manufacture of alcoholic beverages. It was called Prohibition.

The results? Bathtub gin and other unsanitary home made beverages that blinded or killed a lot of human beings. Also, the rise of organized crime, the original criminal cartels, when they found a product that was cheap to produce and that everyone wanted at whatever price they chose to charge.

Illegal fortunes were made and local and state governments completely corrupted, and gangsters slaughtered one another in broad daylight over the huge profits at stake. The murderous gangster Al Capone was the most famous man in the world at one point, earning a million dollars a week in the 1920s, when 9¢ bought what a dollar buys today. That’s even better than today’s hedge fund thugs can manage.

It took America more than a dozen years to undo the damage, and the 19th Amendment to the Constitution cancelled the 18th and booze became legal, sanitary and inexpensive once again. Fast forward to the 1960s and ’70s and the rise in popularity of recreational drugs, mostly the harmless weed Marijuana but also including hallucinogens such as LSD and mescaline, and narcotics like heroin and opium, barbiturates of every pharmaceutical description and stimulants like cocaine and various amphetamines.

The nation was stunned and angry, and cynical politicians jumped all over the demonization bandwagon, passing laws against any drug that people seemed to enjoy. And so Prohibition was reborn, but this time not with an amendment to the Constitution but a thousand local and State laws varying in their severity, plus a smorgasbord of Federal Statutes thrown in.

The results? America holds more prisoners in our jails than any other nation on earth, an unconscionable 2 million souls, well over half of them for drug offenses. The spotty and unsupervised production of drugs resulted in overdose deaths and diseases, and the unavailability of clean needles created an epidemic of hepatitis among IV drug users.

And then there’s the rise of the new Capones, the billion-dollar drug cartels every bit as violent as the gangsters of the Roaring Twenties. They in turn have corrupted untold government officials to turn a blind eye to their lucrative business. The products they sell are derived from weeds, wild flowers and plants, cheaper than corn to grow and process, yet fetching caviar prices on the street.

Their profit margin was not lost on the huge pharmaceutical companies, who today produce many, many times the amount of “legal” addictive drugs than medical doctors require for treatment purposes. The rest find their way to drug users at hyper-inflated prices.

These astronomical drug prices contribute to crime, with many addicts needing to steal to get their fix, which would be the equivalent of one Martini costing $75, or a single glass of beer $15. Does anyone believe that our countless alcohol addicts wouldn’t turn to crime if faced with paying those kinds of prices?

The argument that alcoholics aren’t breaking the law by drinking doesn’t take into account that almost the entire nation broke the law during Prohibition. The amount of drinking in America didn’t change at all during Prohibition, and the attempted demonization of drinkers never took hold outside of the few hopeless drunks that were in every town and neighborhood, and still are.

The argument that consenting adults drinking alcohol do very little harm to society is also a myth that has been exploded in recent years by organizations such as MADD, and the vast carnage that drinking alcohol creates is general knowledge. No one, however, asks that it be outlawed, not wanting to return to the days of bathtub gin, infectious diseases and Al Capone.

So it’s odd indeed how few people see that this is exactly what is happening, and what has been happening for a very long time when it comes to drugs. And so the War on Drugs continues to claim many lives, many of them innocent children born to HIV-positive parents, or relatives of addicts who themselves do not use drugs.

No one condones addiction, whether to cigarettes, chocolate, bourbon, pain killers or heroin. But these things exist, and people who like them will find them, no matter who approves or how much they have to pay. That’s reality.

Another reality is the existence of a huge infrastructure built up over a half century dedicated to maintaining the War on Drugs. The huge growth industry that is our prison system has gotten so large that some state and municipal governments are privatizing prisons, prompting the private prison corporations to lobby legislators to pass even stiffer anti-drug laws with lengthier sentences in order to ensure a steady flow of their industry’s only raw material; human beings.

Then there are the countless law enforcement agencies dedicated to drug interdiction, huge bureaucracies employing hundreds of thousands of individuals, as well as having every police department everywhere dedicate a portion of their forces to drug enforcement. The assumption is that all these things are necessary, while the reality is that the whole thing is a self-feeding machine that exists only because it exists.

The fact that recreational drug use has dramatically increased during the 50 years of the War on Drugs only prompts the drug enforcers to throw more money and personnel at the problem, a problem that could be erased with the stroke of a pen making drugs legal. 50 years of failure and an ever-growing death toll demands that we end this idiotic war.

It is time we grew up about drugs and deal with them as we do alcohol; legalize, regulate and tax them, treat the hopeless addicts and educate potential abusers. 90% of all alcoholic beverages are consumed by 10% of the population, and the figure for legalized drugs will be identical. Doctors and scientists know this, educators and rehabilitation specialists know this too.

That’s the nature of humanity, 10% of us are addicts. No law and no war will change that. Treatment, research and medical science may one day change this, but killing people and locking them in prison for many years is far more heinous and inhumane than anything the average drug addict will ever do. Let’s send up the white flag and figure something else out.

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