Leave Robert Downey Jr. Alone

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Last
Wednesday actor Robert Downey Jr. pleaded innocent to charges of
drug possession and being under the influence of a controlled substance
during Thanksgiving weekend in Palm Springs, California. An anonymous
phone tip had led police on November 25 to Downey’s room at a resort
where he was found with cocaine and diazepam. For possessing both
substances Downey could face up to 6 years in prison.

Downey’s
struggle with drug addiction is anything but new. His run-ins with
the law began on June 23, 1996, when he was stopped for speeding
and police found cocaine and heroin in his vehicle. A month later
neighbors were shocked to come home one day and find Downey inside
their house, passed out on their child’s bed. Three days after that
he was arrested for leaving a drug rehab center. In August 1999
he was sentenced to three years in California State Prison for missing
drug tests that were a condition of his probation. He was released
August 2, 2000, on $5,000 bail by a California court for showing
promising progress in drug rehab. His most recent arrest comes a
little less than four months since his August release.

Downey,
who won an Oscar nomination for his work in the 1992 film Chaplin,
was in the middle of a promising comeback. Not only did he land
a recurring role on the popular comedy Ally McBeal, he was
also set to star in a January 2001 Los Angeles stage run of Shakespeare’s
Hamlet directed by Mel Gibson. Actor Merv Griffin, the owner
of the resort where Downey was arrested, has thrown his support
to the young actor to keep him from being returned to prison.

Griffin
has Downey’s best interest at heart. Incarceration, where Downey
can be raped and beaten by actual criminals, is inhumane and has
totally failed to wean Downey from his drug addiction. Downey complained
to a bail bondsman after his most recent arrest that he had been
working 16- and 18-hour days on Ally McBeal and had been
under a lot of pressure. This suggests that Downey is having problems
managing stress and that treatment and counseling is what he really
needs instead of further incarceration. But given the current system,
it seems unlikely that he’ll avoid more prison time.

The
Downey arrest, dismaying as it is, comes amid other disturbing stories
in the news about drug use. It seems that a booming market in drugs
has broken out among 8-year-olds on America’s playgrounds. New York
correspondent James Bone of The Times of London reported
on November 28 that American public schools have mass-drugged children
with Ritalin since the early 1990s to the point where use of the
drug has jumped an astonishing 7 times to a total of 2 million users.
Accompanying the spread of Ritalin through American public schools
has been the development of a huge illegal market in the drug among
the jungle-gym set.

The
Ritalin pills, known to kids as "smarties," are traded
for Pokemon cards, Britney Spears CDs, Beanie Babies, or cash. The
cash price ranges from $2-$20 a pill. Users take the pills and crush
them either for snorting or injection and describe their pharmacological
effect as equivalent to anything from a strong caffeine jolt to
a subdued cocaine-type high.

Supply
to this market comes from children who are prescribed the drug but
don’t take it, preferring to sell their pills. A third of school
children prescribed Ritalin in Wisconsin and Minnesota were offered
money for their pills. Two children prescribed Ritalin in Chicago
had to change schools after being viciously harassed by other children
for not illegally selling their pills. The Drug Enforcement Administration
has found that as much as 50% of teens in drug rehab centers in
Indiana, South Carolina, and Wisconsin have used Ritalin to get
high.

As
if this wasn’t bad enough news for the Drug Warriors, a survey released
by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America (PDFA) on November 27
shows that although teens are using less marijuana, the use of the
synthetic hallucinogen Ecstasy has more than doubled in 5 years.
A closer look at the study reveals that the rosy picture PDFA paints
about the marijuana trend is no more than spin. About 33% of respondents
had used marijuana in the past year as opposed to 36% three years
ago. About 21% had used the drug in the previous month as opposed
to 24% three years ago.

This
three-year decline is not, contrary to PDFA spin, indicative of
any long-sustaining trend, especially given the survey’s 1.5 percentage
point margin of error. PDFA also tries to minimize the Ecstasy trend
as a temporary "trial-use" fad like earlier trial-use
fads involving cocaine, LSD, and heroin.

All
this admission does is highlight the fact that the War on Drugs,
by selectively focusing on some substances to the exclusion of myriad
others, has unwittingly created a revolving and dangerous black-market
smorgasbord of choices, none of which would likely be very attractive
to potential users in its absence.

"Huffers"
buy spray paint and paint thinner from hardware stores and inhale
the toxic fumes, which can induce cardiac arrest. "Ravers,"
along with Ecstasy, buy nitrous-oxide containers and empty the contents
into balloons for quick inhalation. These "whip-its" have
caused some users to suffer blackouts and irreversible brain damage.

High
schoolers buy bottles of Robitussin from drugstores and get "buzzed"
by quickly gulping down the contents. More natural types comb fields
and forests for mushrooms and jimsonweed. The mushrooms and jimson
seeds are soaked in water to make hallucinogenic teas. Many deaths
have occurred from poisonous concoctions produced when the wrong
plants have been selected or the teas improperly made.

The
doctor’s office has been an increasingly popular place for procuring
recreational drugs. One man in my town used to be pulled over by
police for his erratic driving on the road. When police found marijuana
and heroine in his vehicle, he was quickly arrested and taken to
jail. It was only after a couple of these episodes that the man
smartened up. Faking a back injury and "horrible pain,"
he now receives regular prescriptions and liberal refills of oxy-
and hydrocodone from his doctor.

These
legal narcotics more than do the job for this man in terms of producing
a high. Nowadays, when police pull him over and see his prescription
bottles, they respectfully tell him to "please be more careful"
and send him on his way. To see the blatant inconsistency of our
"drug" laws, change the pill bottles to beer bottles and
put a whiff of alcohol on the man’s breath and the man gets arrested.
Letting him float along in a hydrocodone-induced stupor is apparently
okay. Apparently some downers are more politically incorrect than
others.

I’ve
never abused one of these substances and I think the people mentioned
above probably have some pretty shallow lives. But I also think
that a nation which turns 8-year-olds into playground Ritalin dealers
has no moral authority to continue incarcerating Robert Downey,
Jr.

Incarceration
is a particularly brutal punishment for a man introduced to drugs
at age 12 by his own father. When he ends up passed out in other
people’s homes, he should be held accountable. But when he, like
millions of other non-violent drug offenders, neither trespasses
on others’ property nor otherwise infringes on others’ rights, and
wants to continue using drugs, then he should be reminded of the
consequences and allowed to proceed at his own risk. By some reports,
he has already been warned enough about the risks of his behavior
by his friends.

Conservatives
such as William Bennett and Cal Thomas who believe that, given enough
money, they can win the War on Drugs must be resisted every bit
as much as the liberals who believe they can win the War on Poverty
by throwing seemingly limitless amounts of money at the poor. They
can’t even keep recreational drugs out of maximum-security prisons.
Bennett and Thomas’s desire to turn the entire US into one large
"drug-free" prison will fail. It will only further empower
the wiretapping, voyeuristic class of federal predators attenuating
our civil liberties while doing nothing to help nonviolent substance
abusers such as Downey.

December
30, 2000

Dale
Steinreich, PhD, is a consulting economist. He
is also a regular contributor to AgainstTheCrowd.com.

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