A plague of heroin addiction is upon us. Another plague. Heroin was the crisis that prompted Richard Nixon to launch the war on drugs in 1971.
Time marched on. Cocaine and then crack cocaine and then methamphetamine overtook heroin as the drugs of the moment. Now heroin is back — and badder than ever.
The war on drugs also grinds expensively on, an estimated $1 trillion down the hole so far. Amid the triumphant announcements of massive drug seizures and arrests of the kingpins, heroin has never been more abundant or so easy to find, in urban and rural America alike.
Still, marijuana accounts for almost half of drug arrests, and most of those are for possession, not selling. This may sound counterintuitive, but as states ease up on the sale and use of pot, opportunity knocks for dealing with the heroin scourge.
"If I had to write a prescription for the heroin problem," retired Cincinnati police Capt. Howard Rahtz told me, "the first thing I'd do is legalize marijuana."
Rahtz has fought this battle on several front lines. After serving 18 years as a law officer, he ran a methadone clinic to treat addicts. A member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, Rahtz won't go so far as the group's official position, which is to legalize all drugs.
"I would not make heroin available as a recreational drug," he said. "But I would make it available on a medical basis."
Rahtz sees treatment as the only promising way to truly confront the heroin epidemic. He recalls his days as a police captain going after the traffickers:
"We started getting record amounts of drugs, money and guns, and I'm writing memos to the chief. But then I'd ask the guys, 'Is anyone walking around Cincinnati unable to find drugs?'"
Because drug cartels garner 60 percent of their revenue from the marijuana trade, legalizing pot would smash up their business model.
"I have zero problem with recreational marijuana," Rahtz said.
He would like Colorado and other states now taxing marijuana to earmark the money for drug treatment and rehabilitation. It's crazy that only 10 percent of heroin addicts get into treatment, according to federal statistics.
Why the heroin epidemic now? Much of the surge in heroin use stems from the recent crackdown on prescribed painkillers. Those addicted to pain medication went looking for an easily available alternative and found heroin.
(One might question the value of making it hard for those hooked on prescription drugs to get them. At least then, a doctor would be on their case.)
Today's astounding heroin death tolls reflect the reality that heroin sold is now 10 times more pure than it was in the '70s. Adding to the tragedy, tolerance levels for heroin drop for those in treatment. The relapse rate in drug programs is high, and those who go back are killed by the strength of the drug on the street.
What should be obvious is the futility of dumping all this money into the war on drugs while putting those wanting treatment on waiting lists. Even if many of those treated end up going back into the dungeon of drug use, their weeks or months off the drug ate into the dealers' profits.
Bringing heroin addicts in for treatment deprives the cartels of their best high-volume customers. Legalizing pot puts them out of their most lucrative business. Using tax revenues from the legal sale of marijuana to pay for treatment completes the virtuous circle.
This virtuous circle can replace the vicious circle of the drug war. As odd as this sounds, we can fight heroin with marijuana.
(A member of the Providence Journal editorial board, Froma Harrop writes a nationally syndicated column from that city. She has written for such diverse publications as The New York Times, Harper's Bazaar and Institutional Investor.)