Drug abuse is not a victimless crime

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2015/11/03/drug-abuse-is-not-a-victimless-crime/

In this increasingly permissive age, we are told that drug abuse is a victimless crime. The Wikipedia entry for “victimless crime” includes “recreational drug use.” In July, President Obama commuted the sentences of nearly four dozen men and women convicted of selling drugs (mainly crack or cocaine), downplaying their crimes as “non-violent drug offenses.” Libertarian groups such as the Cato Institute and even some Republican candidates such as Senator Rand Paul say it is time to end the war on drugs.

The notion that drug abuse – much less drug dealing – is a “victimless” crime is sheer and utter nonsense. So is the description of drug dealing as a “non-violent” offense. The fact is that illegal drug use kills tens of thousands of Americans each year, including many who were not themselves drug users. This death toll does not even include the thousands of persons murdered each year in drug-related gang violence.

The most obvious victims of drug abuse are the approximately 44,000 people, including many teenagers and young adults, who die from overdoses each year. That is about 120 people, on average, every single day. To put that number in context: as horrible as school shootings are, they do not come close to ending as many lives in an entire year as drugs do every day. Yet while the President urges increased government regulation of firearms in response to the former, his commutations result in the government sending (at best) mixed messages on the latter.

New England is on the front lines of the problem. Massachusetts had more than 1,000 overdose deaths from heroine and other opioids in 2014. Vermont, Maine, Connecticut and New Hampshire had roughly comparable overdose death rates per 100,000 residents; Rhode Island’s rate is a staggering 50 percent higher. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh are urging the passage of restrictions on opioid prescriptions to combat the problem.

I suppose some may say that illegal drug users get what’s coming to them. But what about their children?

Stories about infants and children who are killed by their drug-abusing parents, either intentionally or as a result of utter lack of care, tear at the heart. Last month brought the story of Chance Walsh, a 9-week old baby who was on his way to starving to death as a result of neglect by his parents, both long-time drug abusers.

That apparently was taking too long for the father, who beat Chance to death and left his body in the crib. The mother did not turn the murderer in, but instead complained to him about the smell of the baby’s decomposing body. The parents therefore threw Chance’s body in a closet before eventually burying him in a shallow grave.

Or consider the heroin-addicted mother of two-year old Bella Bond, the “Baby Doe” whose remains were found in plastic bag washed up on a Boston Harbor island. After Bella’s mother’s “boyfriend” – also a heroin user – murdered the child, the two of them kept the girl’s body in a refrigerator for several weeks before eventually dumping her in the ocean.

At the risk of generalizing, parents who don’t take drugs usually do not act this way.

The death toll is not limited to children murdered by their drug abusing parents. Earlier this year a five-day old baby was killed when she overdosed from heroin and methamphetamine passed to her by her breast-feeding mother.

Tragically, these are not rare occurrences. While statistics are hard to come by, a story reports “scores” of children who die in one state alone (Florida) each year as a result of their parents’ substance abuse.

What to do about the nation’s drug problem is a complicated question. As with Prohibition’s failed effort to stamp out alcohol abuse, there plainly are downsides to criminalization. (Note that about 6 people per day die from alcohol poisoning, only 1/20th the number who die from drug overdoses).

One thing seems clear, however: drug abuse and dealing are far from victimless, and obscuring the carnage with references to “victimless” and “non-violent” crimes is entirely counter-productive to efforts to reduce the death toll.

Contributing columnist Kevin P. Martin is a constitutional and regulatory law expert practicing in Boston. The views expressed in this column are his own and not those of his law firm. Read his previous columns here