Kerry Healey: It’s time Americans realized what our appetite for illegal drugs does to the individuals who are compelled—economically or at gun point—to produce, process and transport the illegal drugs we use. (AP Photo)

In recent years, American consumers’ understanding of global markets has become increasingly sophisticated. They have shown a new willingness to alter their patterns of consumption based on ethical concerns that would have seemed obscure or unimportant to earlier generations.

Whether buying a cup of coffee or a diamond engagement ring, contemporary Americans exercise an unprecedented awareness of the global impact of their purchasing decisions. The ecological, moral or political implications of foreign-sourced products — from Mexican ethanol to Chilean sea bass to Venezuelan oil — are being scrutinized from new perspectives that allow consumers to view their buying power as a small-scale, highly personal vehicle for social and political activism. This new culture of “ethical consumerism” has created a growing consensus that personal morality and political priorities can be expressed through what one does — or does not — consume.

We should embrace this as an opportunity to reframe the national discussion about our appetite for illegal drugs. Demand control — simply put, getting people not to buy drugs — has always been the holy grail of drug control policy, a tantalizing but ever-elusive goal. The US government is much better at cracking down on drug producers than at convincing American drug consumers to “Just say no.” But supply-reduction efforts have their limits: No matter how many tons of heroin and cocaine are seized at the border or how many acres of coca and poppies are poisoned in foreign fields, more will make its way onto American streets.

Supply reduction efforts only serve to highlight the elephant in the room: Americans buy drugs, and that’s why criminal gangs and narco-terrorists mobilize to sell them to us. The drug sellers are bad actors, to be sure, but we are not innocent as long as we create a market for their goods.

It’s time Americans realized what our appetite for illegal drugs does to the individuals who are compelled — economically or at gun point — to produce, process and transport the illegal drugs we use. Many Americans erroneously imagine illegal drug use to be a “victimless” crime, but in fact there are tens of thousands of victims.

It’s time for young Americans, who feel a moral obligation to those who live in poverty and oppression around the world, to understand the role that American drug use plays in creating violence and desperation in many countries. It’s time to draw a bright line connecting the 50,000 people brutally murdered in Mexico’s drug wars since 2006 to the $65 billion that, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, Americans spend on illegal drugs each year. It’s no accident that the fragile countries that supply the world with illegal drugs are often the ones most riven by war and plagued with human rights abuses, poverty and fear.

These are messages that young Americans are more than capable of understanding. There is no reason to talk down to them with ad campaigns focused on the real or imagined health risks of drug abuse. Young people feel immortal, and the message of many Baby Boomer parents has been that drug use is a “stage” one passes through and is ultimately harmless. No government-sponsored scare tactics will change those flippant attitudes.

Today’s youth and their Boomer parents can understand, however, that for the United States to be respected as a world leader with moral authority, we cannot tolerate behaviors by our own citizens that create suffering and chaos in other countries. We have already opened our eyes to the damage that our untrammeled consumerism has wrought in foreign factories, rainforests and diamond mines. Now we need to open our children’s and our nation’s eyes to the global damage that our self-indulgent attitudes toward illegal drug use inflict on the peoples of Guatemala, Afghanistan, Thailand, Mexico and elsewhere. In these countries people are denied true, sustainable economic development because supplying drugs to Americans is easier and more profitable for a select few.

We need to associate drugs not with self-harm, but with harm to nameless people around the world, people who have died or lived in fear and poverty so the product could be brought to the American market. Illegal drug use should be as politically incorrect as secondhand smoke, texting while driving and fois gras. It may take a generation to change attitudes, but as with smoking and littering, social change can be achieved by telling kids the truth: Illegal drugs may or may not hurt you, but our appetite for them causes untold harm to people you may never see.

In the end, it seems, Nancy Reagan was right: We should just say no. She just didn’t explain why.

Tags: Law

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  • Chris Devers

    That or decriminalize drugs, and erase the black market at a stroke. Too obvious? Too dangerous? No.

    That’s what Portugal has done, and the results look impressive a decade later:

  • Joe

    I believe this article to be slightly mislead.

    It is not the ravenous appetite for drugs on American shores that is leading to the deaths of millions worldwide; rather it is the Prohibition on the consumption of drugs on American shores which is leading to these deaths.

    If we look back to the time of Al Capone in the 1920’s we see that criminals were engaging in malicious acts of violence, like the Bloody Sunday Massacre/St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago in 1929, not because Americans liked to drink alcohol, but rather because the black market created by Prohibition brought about a perfect opportunity for criminals to do what they do best; utilize violence to make a profit.

    if you want to see an end to violence with regards drug trafficking the solution is to decriminalize the narcotics, much like Portugal and Brazil have done.

    This article is a large apology for an American Drug-War which has killed millions since it’s inception in the 1970’s.

    I simply do not understand the logic of those who look to lock up citizens for simple possession, is it something like “Drugs will ruin your life, so to punish you for having them we’re going to ruin your life!”? because that makes little to no sense.

    I suggest the author of this article take a long and hard look in the mirror, for it was moral crusaders promulgating the very same ideology as we find here that facilitated the faux drug-war in the first place.

    It is no coincidence that the exponential rise in the incarceration rate in America directly correlates to the passage of the first Federal Scheduling of Narcotics Act in 1971; or that with continued privatization of the countries prisons, some of the biggest lobbying money to keep drug laws on the books comes from companies like the “Correctional Corporation of America”.

    The author of this article holds a view of the drug war which is outdated, out of touch, and a bit sinister; she must stop playing a pawn for the large scale corporate interests which profit exponentially from the Prohibition on the consumption of certain drugs.

    End the drug war! End the drug gangs! And, with that, bring much needed tax revenue and industry growth back to American shores.

    “…we cannot tolerate behaviors by our own citizens that create suffering and chaos in other countries.”

    Exactly right, Article Author; use your own logic to see why we must no longer tolerate the Drug-Laws created by American politicians which have killed more innocent human beings than any narcotic!

  • Margot Hill

    Well said, Ms. Healey, and a brilliant tactic to take in the so-called ‘war on drugs’ that, BTW, we are losing. Today’s young people are more socially aware and quick to jump on causes they believe are in direct opposition to their foolish parent’s choices – the same parents you rightfully accuse of calling drug use a ‘phase.’ They forget their own generation’s casualties so easily now because they survived it. Many of their peers did not. To put drug use in the arena of awareness of consumer choices to prevent another from suffering harm is an idea long past its due date. There are untold thousands of people suffering in the drug trade in other countries and the collateral damage spills over into human trafficking victims, and often these victims are the most vulnerable – women, children, and elderly people not in a position to resist.
    Great idea, well thought out. I hope the next administration pays attention to it, and that you are part of that administration!

    • Joe

      The biggest tragedy of your generation was allowing the Federal Scheduling of Narcotics act to be passed! Shame on all you Baby-Boomers.

      Between 1776 and 1971 America averaged an Incarceration rate in-line with the rest of the developed world, in 1971 we began a trend towards mass incarceration which ruined more lives than any drug. ( )

      Now we are faced with a situation wherein not only are Americans suffering because of this ridiculous drug war, but 50,000 people lost their lives in Mexico last year alone.
      Your generation did this! All of these deaths from the drug war fall on the shoulders of those who allowed for the usurpation of the republic by private factions so as to reinstate Prohibition for profit.

      End the drug war now! Decriminalization of all drugs will end the huge cash flows for human traffickers.

  • Danny

    Nancy Reagan’s approach to the problem conveniently ignored the connection between drugs and addiction, and so have you. “Just say no” was a flop. It was lame then and it’s just as lame now. We created the market for the drug traffickers and the accompanying horror that ensued with our laws. We will never get anywhere by demonizing a substance, but that is what you and many Americans continue to do. Silly really.

  • Tom

    Get real. Political correctness is going to stop people from using illegal drugs? Sure, and maybe Americans will stop shopping at Walmart tomorrow because they use sweatshop labor. Not likely. I’m with Joe–the best way to reduce the impacts of illegal drugs, is to make them legal. People have the right to decide what to put in their own bodies. Tax the heck out them to deal with the impacts, but the only way to eliminate the role of criminals in the process is to decriminalize.

  • Shava Nerad

    The people who turn to drugs are exactly the people who can not focus further than their own lives. Appealing to them to think in a global balance of trade and altruism is absurd and naive.

    It is equally naive to consider that the supply and demand of drugs has to do with the user as a focus. Drugs are big business globally exactly because they are illegal. Poppies and hemp were a crop in American colonial gardens — they grow like weeds, and they are dead cheap to grow and maintain in temperate climates. They are not valuable, compared to something like tomatoes or oranges, which take a lot more care and processing and coddling in transport.

    These commodities are expensive and valuable precisely because they are illegal, and that makes them valuable, which creates a powerful industry around them. This makes for an elaborate international criminal structure that exploits the people you pity on both ends — the abusers of the drugs, and the peasants who are often abused by the criminals who broker drugs on the international market.

    You can diffuse much of the power and threat of these problems through diverting money used for enforcement to regulation and rehabilitation, and even more to education and therapy for the people who might otherwise end up abusing drugs. People often end up abusing drugs because they are self-medicating for mental health problems they can’t get help for, or because their life-circumstances are unbearable.

    Perhaps addressing the causes, rather than the symptoms, would be a better approach?

  • Doug

    Disappointing article.. Sounds great.. but not based on reality.. people take drugs, open your eyes.. sugar, coffee, alcohol, not to mention the drug stores on every corner.. If you have a problem there’s a pill to pop…. We need to end this war on drugs, and deal with the issues head on… l

  • Rosanne

    Well written. Well stated.

  • Zmill1

    I think the idea of making the human impact of illegal drug use known is a good one, it is something that people should consider when they buy drugs. But this article basically talks down about illegal drug users, saying that if they just stopped using everything would be fine. Get real. Legalization is the most honest policy in terms of changing the global and human impact of drug use. It is the ONLY policy that tells the truth without saying “Its your fault” to anyone who uses, because that not only doesn’t work it is unwarranted. This article feels too much like an attempt at a guilt trip on drug users.

  • Eric Herot

    I suspect there is not much overlap between “Americans exercise an unprecedented awareness of the global impact of their purchasing decisions,” and your average heroin user. This most basic level of cultural ignorance coming from a lieutenant governor says a lot about how our country ended up with such an ineffective drug policy in the first place.

  • Monika Wahi

    I agree with most of the comments on here, and want to add one that has not been brought up. Today, the “illegal drug” of choice for people under age 25 in the US is marijuana, and much of that is grown either legally in dispensaries, or illegally in outdoor areas or indoor grow rooms in the US and Canada. The violence associated with this “grey” market in the US for marijuana has to do with the governmental enforcement behind these contradictory and confusing laws, and is not the fault of people in the trade committing violence against each other.