Community Forum: War on drugs is not a simple fight

This week’s writer is Christopher L. Mason, school resource officer for Middlebury.
War on Drugs?
As a school resource officer I get asked a lot of questions by students. Though a disturbing percentage are variations on how fast I’ve driven my police cruiser and how accurate I am with my firearm, my opinion on drugs is frequently sought. I’m sure the expectation is I will issue some suitably concise condemnation, similar to Nixon’s declaration in 1971, “Public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.”
The War on Drugs he initiated has been subjected to scathing critiques, variously condemned as misguided, racist and draconian, and having resulted in unprecedented incarceration rates and the militarization of police. Given its tarnished reputation it’s surprising the old rhetoric still commands such political respect, but it remains entrenched, framing campaigns and defining candidates. It speaks to the fundamental fear that the things we most value will be stripped away by encroaching chaos — the fruits of our labor, trust within our communities, and the well-being of those we love.
These are not idle concerns. During the period I worked patrol, serving my time on the night shift, almost every arrest I made had some connection to substances — either directly through illegal possession or DUI, or obliquely through drug- and alcohol-fueled conflict, and thefts to fund habits. The vast majority of these incidents were dangerous or abusive — they posed legitimate threats.
The issue has become so politicized the space between Nixon’s bombast and wholesale permissiveness has shrunk — condensed, like so many issues of profound cultural complexity, into polarized moral absolutes.
Whether we interpret current policies as oppressive or fundamental to public security, is driven largely by their perceived consequences — do we focus upon the social cost of imprisonment rates that have more than quadrupled since 1980, or do we focus upon the radical decrease in crime over that same period?
A more promising approach might be to cast our gaze in the opposite direction, and ask what provokes addiction — if we can identify the causes it’s reasonable to assume we might be able to frame more effective solutions. Though the factors are complex, it does appear there are powerful correlations with particular circumstances, most notably poverty and mental illness.
But I believe the root runs far deeper than this — I believe it connects directly to the most fundamental aspects of our humanity. What these factors have in common is their impact upon happiness. I’m not referring to casual joy, but a deep sense of fulfillment acquired through connection and a sense of purpose.
Whether we envision meaning as something encountered or something created, its presence provides structure and engenders resilience, while its absence leaves us fragile and disoriented. Engagement expands and enriches our sense of self — but effective engagement requires resources, and those are frequently the skills stripped from the most marginalized members of society — the poor and the sick.
Another dimension to the issue is that we live in a society that has historically emphasized the value of independence — often elevating rugged individualism above connection. In this respect our culture reinforces isolation, and, ironically, renders us more susceptible.  
This disengagement may fuel use, though I believe use is fairly widespread — what is much more significant is its connection to addiction. Where there is brokenness substances can offer tremendous relief, flooding the mind with chemical bliss and generating a sense of wholeness entirely elusive in life.
Unfortunately drug use renders it far harder to establish and maintain satisfying relationships and enriching commitments. Dependence is reinforced both by the synthetically induced contentment itself, and the fact that use robs us of the capacity to access those feelings in any other way.
The implication is that the drug problem is far more effectively combated through community outreach, especially directed toward youth, than through classic enforcement efforts. I am convinced that inspiring a sense of belonging — building trust where it’s been broken through neglect or violence — is the most sound strategy we can embrace as a society.
What’s encouraging is that I see these efforts being made daily by people within our school system, by local organizations such as Addison Central Teens, and dedicated counselors and social workers operating through the Counseling Service of Addison County and the Department for Children and Families. And beyond this, the things we do daily as citizens to make our community stronger, that draw people in and provide hope, are ways we actively strive against addiction.
Supporting these resources is essential, but it’s also important to be realistic. Healing is challenging — it requires courage and perseverance, and the barriers can seem insurmountable. Though the resources may exist, many people who are suffering do not seek help — or regard it as malicious and intrusive. This is why we need criminal interventions propelling people into recovery and protecting the community — and why we need support services like Turning Point, helping those on the other end regain connection and rebuild shattered lives, often through programs emphasizing relationships.
It’s also important is to recognize this is not a pattern limited to drug abuse. The prevalence of addiction to substances pales against electronic dependency. Again, for an individual leading a rich life, socially engaged and partaking of broad opportunities, video games, television and social media present a small risk, but when somebody desperately desires escape from an existence perceived as entirely bleak, these avenues offer a remedy that is hard to resist and can become utterly consuming.
The challenge that faces us as a community is not drugs, but that deeper issue of fulfillment. For law enforcement to be a fully engaged participant in the solution, departments and individual officers need to be committed to engaging the communities they serve and building relationships, most especially with those most difficult to get along with — those familiar characters who consistently cause the most trouble. As officers we need to recognize their destructive behavior comes from a place of pain and need — sometimes taking decisive action to maintain safety, and occasionally imposing consequences, but doing so from a place of compassion and striving towards healing.

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