In 1965, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy tried to promote an enlightened drug policy before our country declared war on its own citizens. He told Congress, "Now, more than at any other time in our history, the addict is a product of a society which has moved faster and further than it has allowed him to go, a society which in its complexity and its increasing material comfort has left him behind. In taking up the use of drugs the addict is merely exhibiting the outermost aspects of a deep-seated alienation from this society, of a combination of personal problems having both psychological and sociological aspects."
Kennedy continued, "The fact that addiction is bound up with the hard core of the worst problems confronting us socially makes it discouraging at the outset to talk about ‘solving' it. ‘Solving' it really means solving poverty and broken homes, racial discrimination and inadequate education, slums and unemployment...." Thirty-eight years later, the preconditions contributing to drug addiction have changed little, but our response to the problem has become overwhelmingly punitive.
When confronted with illegal behavior, legislators have traditionally responded by escalating law enforcement. Yet countries such as Iran and China that routinely use the death penalty for drug offenses still have serious drug problems. Clearly there are limits to what can be achieved through coercion. By treating this as a criminal justice problem, our range of solutions has been sharply limited: How much coercion do we need to make this problem go away? No country has yet found that level of repression, and it is unlikely many Americans would want to live in a society that did.