This past Tuesday night, the mutually assured destruction rhetoric of Democratic presidential candidates halted briefly with an unexpected pronouncement from Andrew Yang. Yang’s very presence on the debate stage was unexpected enough just a few months ago, so he was giving his entrepreneurial best to create a memorable moment. I’d say he succeeded.
“We need to decriminalize opioids for personal use; we need to let this country know this is not a personal failing,” Yang said. “We need to open up safe consumption and safe injection sites around the country because they save lives.”
Yang has offered this opinion previously but not before such a large audience. But the candidate’s boldness reminds us you can be so right you’re wrong.
Yes, the War on Drugs is an abject failure. It’s drained trillions of dollars from the nation’s treasury with little other than overflowing jail cells, filled disproportionately with African Americans, to show for it. Only Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign proved a more resounding flop.
And, Yang is right that more than 100 people die every day in this country from a drug overdose. (The National Institute on Drug Abuse says 130.) But, will his solution play in Peoria, Illinois, once considered the capital of conservative middle America?
Knoxville could build a case as a southeastern version of Peoria. Too far north to feel kinship with the deep South, and too far south to please Yankees; too many long-haired liberals for conservatives, and too many Trump-supporting conservatives for liberals; a slice of Bible Belt America a little jealous of its rich countrified sister to the west, and plain terrified of its even bigger sister and her crime problems perched on the banks of the Mississippi. Given these arguably middle-of-the-road credentials, would locals see the merit in Yang’s proposal?
Not a chance. Yang’s argument is sound, but it appeals to the intellect. Here and elsewhere emotion clouds discussions of drug abuse. Citing a “moral lapse” cuts off rational debate.
Plans like Yang’s have met with success in other countries, Portugal in particular. But, this isn’t Portugal, it’s not even San Francisco, a city much more likely to embrace Yang’s idea. In fact, around here we can be downright reactionary at times.
Example: A few years ago a plan developed to build housing for the homeless in West Knox County. Reaction from area residents was swift, ugly and frankly scary. I was at the meeting in which the plan was unveiled and left with a very bad taste in my mouth.
How would folks react to plans to build opioid injection sites in their neighborhood? I don’t need to use my imagination.
Yang’s idea, sound as it is, won’t play in Peoria or Knoxville, at least not yet.
To appoint, or not to appoint a law director. That is the question I posed to local elected officials over a span of a couple of weeks, and some treated it like it was unshielded plutonium.
One individual provided a detailed argument for why we need to stop electing law directors but made me pledge my firstborn as surety that I would not quote anything from our discussion.
OK, then. Not my week to burn sources, anyway.
Larry Van Guilder is the business/government editor for KnoxTNToday.