Whenever there is a news story about heroin inevitably someone leaves a comment like the following:
"Flood the market with poison junk and let the problem solve itself!"
Then there's assholes like Stan Solomon who writes on his blog,
Is it moral to poison the supply? The answer is a resounding yes. Users are killing themselves anyway, users are killing others occasionally, users are mandating the use of scarce resources that could help save or at a minimum, help enhance the lives of thousands of deserving, law abiding citizens, and users would be warned so that they have the option of not being affected adversely.
Poison the supply and win the war on drugs with a lot less human loss, human misery, wasted resources, excuses for unconstitutional laws or actions. Poison the supply and everyone (other than those who choose to partake and die) wins.
I would like to say I'm shocked by comments like this, but the truth is these views are all to common. Heroin addicts are so demonized that people feel justified calling for their mass incarceration and outright execution. I wonder if you would feel the same if someone you cared for, a sibling, parent, child or friend, became addicted to Oxycontin or heroin. Would you still want them to go to jail or be murdered? Do people who use certain drugs forfeit their human rights?
A historical perspective is helpful in seeing this hypocrisy for what it is, the need to scapegoat marginalized people. During the period of alcohol prohibition the same problems as opiate prohibition were debated and argued. Contamination of bootleg alcohol caused death and disability above and beyond the use of alcohol itself. In 1926 in New York city hundreds of citizens were poisoned during the holiday season. This was brought up in a debate between the "dry" Wayne Wheeler and "wet" Clarence Darrow:
"The government is under no obligation to furnish the people with alcohol that is drinkable, when the constitution prohibits it. The person who drinks this alcohol is a deliberate suicide." Wayne Wheeler.
"Any man who takes a drink of alcohol today may be poisoned without a trial by jury, without anything, just be poisoned because he dared take it!" Clarence Darrow responding to Wheeler.
Alcohol prohibition ended in 1933, but not before leaving a trail of crime, death and disease in its wake. I'm sure there were calls for the execution of users and dealers to deal with the problem of alcohol abuse (use of any illegal drug is automatically called abuse). One of the driving forces of reform was the increasing draconian penalties for violations of the Volstead Act. From a contemporary viewpoint we can see that calling for the imprisonment and execution of alcohol users is morally wrong, but Americans' cognitive dissonance on the issue of opiates, and illicit drugs in general, blinds them from seeing how wrong our current policies are.
Heroin is one of the most misunderstood drugs in popular culture so allow me to dispel at least one myth. Heroin is not some instantaneously and universally addictive narcotic. It is a pro-drug, a substance that is pharmacologically inactive (or slightly active) but is converted to an active drug by natural processes in the human body, in this case morphine. Strictly speaking heroin addicts are dependent on morphine, an ancient drug indeed.
There have been many famous and well-respected morphine users and addicts throughout history. A partial list includes Thomas De Quincey, Edgar Allen Poe, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Jean Cocteau, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, William Wilberforce, Ben Franklin, John Keats and Dr William Stewart Halsted (known as the father of American surgery). Most of these people got their morphine from opium and heroin can be thought of as opium reinvented for a modern age. I wonder if they are looking down on us from above thinking, "It's a good thing we lived more enlightened times or else we would have been stigmatized, ostracised, marginalized and criminalized simply for our drug of choice." For most of human history opium was a valued medicine and recreational drug. There was little or no stigma associated with its use. The pharmacological properties of morphine have not changed throughout all of human history but our attitudes toward it sure have.
What about the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Liberty is the freedom to pursue your own good in your own way as long as you do no harm to others. Using drugs in the privacy of your own home should be a right of every citizen and most people recognize it as such for alcohol. However if you happen to find happiness in morphine, perhaps as the only respite from a cold and callous world, you are persecuted like a witch during the Spanish Inquisition.
Of course this means nothing to those of you who hate opiate addicts. Hate them without even knowing who they are, hate them like the Nazi's hate Jews, hate them like the KKK hates African Americans. Heroin addicts are among the most marginalized groups in the United States. It doesn't need to be this way. We could come together as a society and find a solution for the dilemma of opiate addiction including the prescribing of opiate medications. Unfortunately you have a moral problem yourself and are not interested in solutions, only punishment. There is a word for that: evil.