As Schumer and Sanders promote federal legislation legalizing marijuana, the newsletter from the Eugene V. Debs Foundation appeared in my mailbox. One item in the newsletter included Debs thoughts on addiction based on his observations when he himself was in prison. It reminds us that drug addiction is not new, nor is the debate about how to treat addicts. The amount of money we have wasted over the past 40 years on the War on Drugs is itself criminal. But the number of lives destroyed is the bigger issue. If that money had been directed toward treatment and eradicating the causes of addiction, just think of how much better off America would be today. Debs wrote the following words 100 years ago, and yet we are stuck in the same paradigm.
“One of the most harrowing aspects of the prison hospital is the drug addict whom I learned to know there in a way to compel the most vivid and shocking remembrance of him to the last of my days. It is incredible that a human being mentally and physically afflicted should be consigned by a so-called court of justice in a civilized and Christian nation to a penitentiary as a felon, there to expiate his weakness; and yet, hundreds of these unfortunates were sent to Atlanta prison while I was there, and ofttimes I had to bear witness to the horror of their torture when they were summarily separated from the drug they craved.
“Blame them as one may, how is it possible in good conscience to punish them for their awful affliction with a prison sentence as if they were common felons. They are sick people who require special treatment, and not vicious ones to be sent to the torture chamber of a prison, and it is nothing less than a reproach to society and a disgrace to our civilization that this malady is branded as a crime instead of being ministered to as an affliction, which it most assuredly is.
“It would be quite as rational and humane to send men to the penitentiary
and make them slaves of the galleys because they happened to have cancer or consumption as it is to sentence and treat them as criminals for being addicted to the use of drugs.”