How Many Will Die? The Progressive Criminal Justice Experiment

“I hit the city and I lost my band

I watched the needle take another man

Gone, gone, the damage done…”

– Neil Young “The Needle and the Damage Done” 

The Needle and the Damage Done may be Neil Youngs most misunderstood song.  Watch the video linked above – the audience loves when Neil Young sings, “I hit the city and I lost my band.”  They applaud it as soon as they hear the opening chords.  They applaud while he sings it.  They applaud at the end.  It’s a song about heroin overdose and death.  I don’t get them.

Heroin, Oxycontin and Fentanyl are all opioids.   It’s difficult to explain the incredible hold that opioids have on users, but I can tell you about one I knew named Josh.  Josh was an addict (in his case heroin) I once arrested who would come and speak to my narcotics classes at Gavilan College.   He, like most addicts, explained getting high on heroin in sexual terms.  It makes sense because opioids activate the pleasure receptors in the brain.  But if sex is a 100 on a pleasure scale – an opioid high is 100 times that.  He told the classes that when he used heroin, he instantly lost all of his insecurities and became the man he dreamed he could be.  Fentanyl is many times more powerful than heroin.

So powerful are opioids, that in order to afford them, Josh, who identified as a heterosexual, willingly prostituted himself to homosexuals and preferred to smoke heroin to avoid the telltale injection marks from the family he sometimes saw and also from potential tricks.   But mostly he stole.

Being addicted to heroin, or any drug, places you on an ever-declining addiction sine curve.   The horizontal axis contains a line called normal and the sine curve peak is the high.  But, as the high wears off you descend below normal.  Over time the highs become less high and the lows, lower.  Eventually becoming high doesn’t get you high anymore.  Addicts struggle to get back to normal.   The ”low” or being “sick” is so painful that drug addicts will do anything to “stay well.”  Being high is constipating and being sick causes intense diarrhea.  No one should be surprised that San Francisco has a public defecation problem.

Such is the cycle of addiction.

Many have stolen their way out of a place to live as family and friends can no longer sustain their presence in the home.

22 years ago, with the passage of Prop 36, California began the process of effectively decriminalizing heroin and in fact, all illegal drugs.   The idea was that arrestees would be diverted into mostly out-patient treatment programs and their progress in treatment would be monitored by probation officers and the courts.   It didn’t work.  The mostly outpatient treatment programs left patients on the streets and on their own and – without threat of rearrest and prosecution – most reverted to their previous drug using behaviors.  If they ever stopped at all. This was particularly true of heroin addicts.

After Prop 36, then Gov. Jerry Brown began to disarticulate California’s drug enforcement apparatus.  He began by cutting grant funded narcotics enforcement and culminated his efforts by shutting down the California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement entirely.   Today California’s budget contains a paltry $125 million in drug enforcement grant money.  In a state of over 38 million people.

There is a false presumption that demand reduction through education and treatment without enforcement will solve the drug problem.  Advocates of that theory forget that a free market of drug availability constantly seeks out new users.  Without effective elimination of illegal drug source and distribution systems through enforcement the drug problem will not end.

A daily opioid (heroin or fentanyl) habit can sometimes reach $100 per day or $36,500 per year depending on price, availability, and how far one has progressed in their addiction.   That’s $36,500 an addict needs to raise before they eat or find a place to sleep – and they choose  drugs over food or shelter all the time.  But stolen goods do not sell on the street for their full retail value.   In fact, stolen property sells for pennies on the dollar.   At .25 cents on the dollar that’s $146,000 in stolen goods per addict.  It’s not hard to see why a city like San Francisco has seen an explosion in car burglaries, retail thefts, and homicides.  Those same 100 addicts can generate almost $1.5 million in thefts through stealth, brazen thefts, and violence.   California has many times that number.

Compounding all of that, most drugs are not produced in pharmaceutical labs, and even when they are, they are “stepped on” or diluted by dealers with other substances in order to increase their profit margins.  This means an addict has little control over their actual dose.  The result is an overdose.

Prior to Prop 36 an individual arrested for being under the influence of an opiate (11550 HS) would face 30 days in county jail.  Why 30 days?  Because they could be detoxed in 30 days, and then referred to a drug program that worked . Delancey Street for example.    Many drug treatment providers believe there is a vital link between law enforcement and treatment.   If treatment and sobriety is the carrot – law enforcement provides the stick.   Law enforcement and their social service partners can also help identify those in need of care and then enforce the terms of their eventual release and post care monitoring.

Total fatal drug overdoses doubled from 2014-2020 for a total of 39,156 and gun deaths are 13,313.    It appears that reducing incarceration rates through decriminalization and crime reclassification has done nothing to make Californians safer – it has done the opposite at great and ongoing human cost.

California Opioid, Drug, and Gun Deaths 2010-2020

Like Neil Young sang:

I’ve seen the needle and the damage done
A little part of it in everyone
But every junkie’s like a settin’ sun

Prior to the devolution of California’s drug enforcement agency, law enforcement funding and court enforced treatment system violence was down, overdoses were down, and homelessness was down.  Today the junkies are dying by the thousands. And like Neil Youngs applauding audience – California’s progressives seem lost to the cause, the meaning, and the solution.

I lost touch with Josh but a police officer I know in Santa Cruz told me that he died about 10 years ago in a hotel room with a needle in his arm.  I guess he stopped caring about what his tricks thought.  Drugs do that.

Steve Smith is a senior fellow in urban studies at the Pacific Research Institute.


Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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