December, 2000, USA
Most everyone in the US has heard about actor Robert Downey Jr.'s problems with drugs. He has landed in jail several times over the past decade for using cocaine, and he also cannot seem to control his drinking. (Gee...sounds kind of like the USA's new president, doesn't it? Well, that's a different issue.) Recently, after three years in prison, Downey re-established his career with a critically acclaimed stint on the Alley McBeal show. But, just as he seemed to be clutching success once again--along with the TV show, he had at least two major movies lined up--Downey's life crashed once again. He was caught with drugs in a hotel room, and now it looks like he'll go to jail again.
Why? That's what I ask. No, not why did he do it, or why did he "throw his life away" as some people are asking. I ask, why should he go to jail? He poses no threat to society. He has never committed a crime, other than possession and use of substances our country has arbitrarily made illegal. Sure, he's checked himself into rehab a few times, and one time he woke up in a neighbor's bed after he'd crawled through the wrong window in a stupored haze. But he's never threatened anybody.
This idea that Downey, and others like him, should be locked in prison with rapists and murderers and child-molestors is absurd. More than that, it's cruel, and it's also destroying our society. If you want to say drug addicts are hurting themselves, fine. If you want to say they often hurt their families, fine. I won't debate either of those. And if you want to say drug users sometimes commit crimes (REAL crimes, like theft or murder) in conjunction with their habbits, I won't argue that either. But locking all drug users in prison is no answer. Gun owners sometimes commit crimes, but we don't lock everyone who owns a gun in jail. Alcoholics routinely tear apart their families, as well as their own bodies, but we don't lock them in prison. Millions of Americans are addicted to nicotene to the point that they endanger their health and that of their chilren. How many people across this country have woken up in strange places after drinking too much? Probably 80% of college students, for a start. So what is the difference?
Tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of Americans languish in prison for doing nothing more than the equivalent of drinking a beer or smoking a cigarette. They pose no threat to society...they simply choose to abuse their bodies with dangerous substances. If they murder or steal, then throw them in jail, but we can't go around imprisoning people on their POTENTIAL to do these things simply because some other addicts do. Even if you still cling to the misquided notion that one dangerous substance is a greater moral evil than another (ie, you believe that someone who snorts cocain belongs in prison while someone who drinks themselves silly three times a week doesn't), there is another fact to consider. The astounding number of nonviolent drug users clogging our prison system means that countless VIOLENT felons have been parolled or released early to make room. Who would you rather have living next door to you: the guy who smokes a joint ever now and then, or the guy who rapes little girls and slits their throats every now and then? Think about it.Nearly everyone in this country is addicted to one drug or another: alcohol, nicotene, cocaine, caffeine, etc. Some of us are just lucky that our drug of choice is legal (and some of us are just lucky that our daddy's are rich enough to get us off even when we do choose the illegal ones...but there I go talking about George W. again).
On a side note, Robert Downey Jr.'s story highlights the falsehood of a common myth we're all taught in the "war on drugs". One of the basic tennets of the anti-drug movement is that drug use ruins lives; "Users are losers, and losers are users", was the rerfrain of a commercial that ran for a long time, an ad for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, or one of those groups. But Downey, like the countless sports figures who've been fined or imprisoned for drug use, proves this is not true. Many highly successful people casually use illegal drugs and have no problem carrying on productive lives, just as many successful people have a drink of acohol now and then. If drugs were as destructive as the anti-drug propaganda claims, Downey would not be able to carry on with his critically-aclaimed acting career, and (fill in the name of a prominent sports figure reported to use drugs...Micheal Irving, Daryl Strawberry, Jason Williams, etc) would not be a dominating sports figure.