By Richard E. Bleil, Ph.D.
As a former civilian employee of a police department, I’ve spent considerable time thinking about the social problems of our penal system. With an incarceration rate of over 600 per 100,000, or 0.6%, the United States may have the highest incarceration rate in the world (at least, to date, I’ve found no countries with higher). This rate outpaces Russia (0.4%), Iran (0.3%) and even Saudi Arabia (0.2%). In our society, we have a habit of locking societal problems out of sight, and out of mind, often without trying to find true solutions. We see it in the in incarceration rates, homelessness, addiction, and the ever-increasing number of “working class poor” who are breaking their backs for their employers but not making enough money to make ends meet. Unfortunately, I believe that some of our “solutions” create more problems than they solve.
Let’s look at the problems of prostitution and drug addiction. I’ll separate these issues out at times as appropriate, but my proposal will be similar for both. Let’s begin by looking at the victims of these issues.
I say issues because there are people caught in a vicious cycle in both. Consider prostitution. Individual stories of how the people (typically women) have fallen into this problem will vary significantly from one person to the next, but those involved in it often are trapped in the profession. They find themselves in situations where they are bullied into working (akin to sexual slavery, or, in far too many cases, literally), kept in line through brutality and chemical addiction.
In drugs, the story of addiction can be different. It might be simple to simply state that, as adults, they are making their own decisions. But, from what I understand, the issue of addiction is difficult to overcome without medical, social and psychological help. I cannot speak from experience as I have never taken drugs. I’ve lived a privileged life, not privilege I have requested, but that I do acknowledge with a bit of shame. But what of the mother with a chemical addiction, who took drugs while pregnant? In their adult life, we now are talking about a person, an actual living fellow human being who may have been born addicted, an addiction they are carrying into their adult life through no fault of their own.
I have a friend who found herself in that position, where she had to “work” to pay for the drugs the dealer with whom she and another “employee” was living. She was one of the lucky ones, free and addiction free by the time I met her, but what of others in a similar situation? She was involved in not one, but both of these illegal activities as a user of drugs and practical prostitute. She managed to escape from the situation because of a deadly and traumatic event, but fortunately she had the strength of will to escape on her own, but what of those who want to get out of prostitution, off of drugs, or both who need help?
With current laws, practicing prostitution and taking drugs are both illegal activities, carrying with them a criminal record, incarceration, and/or fines. If they’re already in trouble with these problems, what is their incentive to seek help where they will have to admit to these crimes?
What if, then, we legalized those working in prostitution and using drugs. At this point, you may well be wondering how we can control these problems if we remove these penalties, but keep with me as my proposal includes a solution to this. However, before we get to that, I do believe we need a special caveat for drug users. The problem with drug abuse is the potential for damage or death to others by actions such as driving under the influence. While I am proposing making use of drugs legal (or, perhaps better, making it “personal responsibility”), I would at the same time dramatically increase punishment for driving under the influence with severe consequences for even the first offense.
So the next obvious question is how to control these problems in society. In China, when drugs were legal, an estimated 90% or more of the population became addicted to opium. While I propose making it illegal to practice prostitution or engage in drugs, I would continue to make it illegal to support these activities. In other words, it would still be illegal for dealers to sell drugs, and it would be illegal to purchase the services of a prostitute, and with stiffer penalties that we have today. This shifts the legal burden from people using drugs, or prostitutes themselves, to those who are the true source of the problem, namely those who profit from drugs, or support the prostitution industry.
In this manner, there is still a mechanism to keep drug use and prostitution down in our society, but also provides an “out” for those who find themselves trapped but wanting to seek help. There would be no fear of retribution for the simple act of trying to get free of their demons. With this proposal, those seeking to escape can safely do so while the police and our society still would have the tools to control the problems.
Personally, I’ve never taken drugs, or participated in the business of prostitution, but I have compassion for those who are trapped in the grasp of these beasts. I don’t expect this proposal will be put into action, but I hope that it will spark creative problem solving for anybody reading it.