Changing Metaphors in Mid-stream
For at least a generation drug law reformers have compared fighting against the Drug War to toppling a row of dominos – a metaphor that President Eisenhower first made popular by applying it to Viet Nam. But the first dominos have now toppled in Colorado and Washington, and a new metaphor is needed.
The problem is that the domino model doesn’t work once the first one has toppled. The dominos start out arranged in a set pattern, and when the first tile topples, the process goes in an orderly linear fashion. Each falling piece strikes the next in line until all have fallen. No surprises can occur.
The world of drug law reform is neither linear nor predetermined. Now that the first drug domino has fallen, the result is a picture of confusing possibilities and uncertainties. No single next-in-line patiently waits to be nudged.
An earthen dam provides a better metaphor of the future. It can be as big as the one whose failure destroyed Johnstown or as small as the one for the stock tank on my grandfather’s farm, but it’s easy to visualize. These dams are simple in concept: just pile dirt in a waterway until the stream is blocked. The higher it is, the more water it can retain; and the thicker it is, the stronger and more lasting.
The federal government has spent more than a century trying to dam the flow of drugs in the country. Beginning with the Smoking Opium Exclusion Act of 1909, it has thrown statute after statute into the drug stream, building up the ponderous structure into the heap known as the War on Drugs.
But earthen dams have a fatal flaw. They are permeable to water. Water invades the structure, loosening its cohesion unless continual maintenance keeps adding dirt to the back side reinforcing it. That water invasion will seep into the structure until it appears as damp spots on the face. These often support moss or clumps of weeds. The damp spots soon become trickles easing down the front side and beginning to erode channels. One of these trickles will break through and a stream of water will shoot out from the dam. When that happens, the dam is doomed. It will rapidly crumble and collapse and the contained water surges into a flood racing downstream.
Damp spots showed up on the Drug War dam in the 1960s when the counterculture and white college kids discovered marijuana. They proliferated when a dozen states decriminalized possession in the ‘70s. Then trickles appeared when California, followed by almost twenty states, approved medical marijuana beginning in the ‘90s. This year two streams came jetting through the dam with legalization votes in Colorado and Washington. The dam is definitely crumbling.
What can the hydraulic engineers of the DEA, DoJ, and ONDCP in Washington do about this? They can just stand by and hope to clean up the mess after the flood subsides (perhaps they can be merged into FEMA), they can try to shave a layer off the top of the dam to release a small overflow and reduce the pressure as a temporary fix, or they can carve a safe spillway and channel the pent-up energy into useful channels – medical research and treatment, better drug education, to name just two. What they cannot do is save the dam.
The dam of Prohibition is broken. Let the waters of reform run free.