By Robert Kahn
“They’re building bigger and better prisons in the States and they’re getting fuller and fuller. But I don’t really see how that’s helping the drug problem.” — Dexter Gordon, 1966
Dexter’s quote, from “Sophisticated Giant,” the excellent new biography by his wife, Maxine, is notable for two things: that Dexter, a drug addict for years, knew more about drugs 50 years ago than U.S. policymakers do today; and that finally we have a decent biography of one of our great American artists.
Let’s start with drugs and money.
The United States spends about $50 billion a year allegedly fighting drugs. But even optimists in law enforcement do not believe we seize more than 10 percent of the illegal drugs smuggled into the country.
No government program with a “success” rate like that, at such expense, deserves to be supported. And none are supported to that extent, except the drug war at home and real wars overseas — none of which have had much success in the past 50 years.
In 1980, 50,000 people were in U.S. prisons for drug crimes. Today, 200,000 are locked up. And in those decades our demand for illegal drugs has increased.
At a cost of $30,000 per inmate per year, we spend $6 billion a year just to keep drug users behind bars.
Dexter Gordon got off heroin twice, both times with the help of doctors, the second time for good. When he lived in England, Dex could walk into a drug store, declare himself an addict, and get the drugs he needed, so long as he worked with a doctor to wean himself off it. And he did.
He returned to the United States, got hooked again, and went back to Denmark, where, with the help of a doctor, he got clean for good. But not until he’d spent more than two years in and out of U.S. jails and prisons — never for dealing, or a crime of violence — just for possessing drugs, or having them in his system.
Let’s do the math.
Instead of throwing away $50 billion every year, suppose we spend some of that money on medical services for addicts.
Let’s say we hire doctors, physician assistants and nurses at $100,000 a year apiece to provide services such as Dexter got in England. Fifty billion dollars would allow us to hire 500,000 medical professionals to treat drug addicts each year.
Obviously, we don’t need 500,000 doctors and PAs to do this. Say we scatter just 100 of these outposts around each state, on average — 5,000 in all. Just for salaries, that would cost us $500 million a year.
That leaves us with $49.5 billion.
How much would it cost to rent little offices for these medical professionals, pay their utilities, buy them computers to track their patients, provide security even. Couldn’t possibly be more than $1 million per year per office.
That leaves us with $44.5 billion.
If all the estimated 7 million drug addicts seek, and get, medical help, we could help all of them for $6,400 a year. That’s cheap. And a lot of that would be subsumed by my outrageous estimate of the costs of rent and utilities for these small offices, with well-paid workers.
Will all of our addicts get clean? Of course not.
Buy by saying, “You can get drugs at cost” — pennies a shot — “and all you have to do is ask for it and see a doctor,” we will be offering all 7 million drug addicts in our country the chance to get clean, under medical care, with clean drugs that won’t kill them.
Is that good? Sure it is. They won’t have to steal and rob to pay for their habit.
And we’ll still have $44.5 billion left over for our phony, failing drug war.
It should have been unnecessary for this man — a genius musician, a kind, articulate fellow, an uplifter of human souls — to waste years of his life in prisons because he had an illness we call addiction.
Throughout those years, his wife tells us, Dexter insisted his life would have a happy ending. And it did. He got clean and created monuments of art — with the help of doctors.
And what is our national approach to drugs?
To work with doctors to reduce the scourge of addiction?
No. It’s to destroy lives. To arrest doctors for the heinous sin of prescribing drugs. It’s to waste human lives as viciously as addiction wastes them.
That’s all we’re doing.