Saturday, July 23, 2005

"Defining deviancy up"

John Tierney, who's been a welcome addition to the New York Times' op-ed page, has been beating up on federal and local law enforcement officials over the newest front in the drug war: abuse of prescription painkillers. According to Tierney, in the hopes of catching a miniscule number of addicts and dirty doctors, the DEA is persecuting honest physicians and the patients desperate for relief from legitimate ailments. Still, he sees a certain twisted logic in it:

During the war on drugs in the 1980's and 1990's, federal and local agents risked their lives going after drug gangs on the streets. As their budgets for drug enforcement soared, they arrested hundreds of thousands of people annually and filled a quarter of American prison cells with drug offenders.

But what did they have to show for it? Drugs remained as available as ever on the streets - and actually got a lot cheaper. The street price of heroin and cocaine dropped by more than half in the last two decades. Dealers just went on dealing, not only lowering their prices but also selling stronger, purer versions of heroin, cocaine and marijuana.

Given this record, and the pressure from Congress to show results, it's understandable that the Drug Enforcement Administration and local police departments hit on a new strategy: defining deviancy up. Federal and local authorities shifted their focus to doctors and the new scourge of OxyContin and similar painkillers, known generally as opioids.

As quarry for D.E.A. agents, doctors offered several advantages over crack dealers. They were not armed. They were listed in the phone book. They kept office hours and records of their transactions. And unlike the typical crack dealer living with his mother, they had valuable assets that could be seized and shared by the federal, state and local agencies fighting the drug war.

Tierney goes on to explain that attorneys general in 30 states complained to the DEA because this crackdown on pill poppers has doctors scared to write patients the prescriptions they need merely to get through the day. And because Oxycontin has become more difficult to purchase, true addicts have been driven to use heroin.

Perhaps the DEA will lay off prescription painkillers and divert resources back to fighting the scourge of heroin. Which might raise street prices, leading addicts to search out a cheaper alternative, like Oxycontin and other prescription painkillers. Then the DEA will be able to go after Oxycontin, sending addicts back to heroin, and then the DEA can go after heroin again...


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