Henry

The last time I saw Henry Granju he was mocking me for being so mainstream as to support a major-party Presidential candidate. His mother had invited friends over to watch Barack Obama give his acceptance speech at the 2008 Democratic convention. Henry was not old enough to vote, but a friend of his had turned 18. I was telling him he would be proud all his life of a vote for Obama, but the two boys told me I should vote for Steve Kubby, a Libertarian who helped legalize medical marijuana in California.

The irony amused me. I am usually the one trying to get someone to vote third party. I have wasted many a vote on sure losers and will waste many more. When the two parties serve up tepid fare, I am more than happy to spice up my ballot with a vote for a Green, a Libertarian or whatever might be available. I could not convince the boys that Obama was something different, someone not connected to wealth and power like the lawyers and businessmen who have made government a debt-hobbled behemoth that pursues stupid strategies like the war on drugs. Even Obama's confessed youthful use of marijuana did not persuade them.

Henry will never get to vote for a President because he died last week after a month-long struggle to survive a drug-related assault. He was beaten, suffering a fractured skull and jaw and brain injuries, but his companions did not summon an ambulance or take him to a hospital. Instead, he spent two nights in a fog of injury and self-medication before his condition grew critical and someone called for help. By then Henry had gone too long without oxygen to his brain. He barely survived the incident and never regained motor skills or his ability to speak before complications took his life.

If marijuana were legal, he might be alive and healthy today. If you could buy a license to get stoned like you do to go fishing, if you could buy a joint like you buy a pint of whiskey, there would be no black-market deals that end in gunfire or beatings. If he never had to cross paths with drug dealers, Henry might never have moved on to more dangerous habits.

Addicts learn to live in the shadows to hide their illegal activities, and Henry's companions' reticence to call for an ambulance was surely colored by their possession of illegal substances. If they had nothing to hide, no reason to fear arrest, Henry might have gotten real medical care and not an ill-considered dose of pain-numbing drugs. Assuming he had enough presence of mind to decide whether to seek a doctor, Henry himself might have placed his fear of being found out ahead of his need for medical attention.

Drug legalization advocates speak of "harm reduction," a policy goal that aims to minimize the harm drugs cause society. Pot smoking has negative consequences, but so do black markets. Methamphetamine is a dangerous substance, but its manufacture is even more toxic. A harm reduction strategy would use licensing, regulation, and taxes to control these drugs rather than prohibition. Our nation learned how harmful alcohol prohibition was a century ago, but we have never applied that lesson to other drugs, even as we throw billions of public dollars at them year after year.

Possibly worse than the danger prohibition creates for users is its impact on our justice system. We have the most crowded prisons of any first-world nation thanks to mandatory sentencing laws, and police priorities have shifted as politicians grow desperate to prove prohibition can work. Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimates that drug prohibition costs federal, state and local governments $48.7 billion per year. He also estimates that legalization would yield $34 billion in revenue if drugs were taxed at rates similar to alcohol and tobacco.

Instead, law enforcement agencies are growing dependent on income from confiscated property, and this distorts their attention from crimes like theft and assault. In Henry Granju's case, the sheriff seemed to be making excuses and leeway for those who injured Henry. First responders thought they were dealing with a drug overdose, and only later did doctors discover his head wounds. It was not until Henry died that detectives investigated the assault and discovered it did not happen at a convenience store on John Sevier Highway the day before he was hospitalized, but in Vestal a day earlier. As of yet, no one has been charged for assault, negligence or a drug crime in connection with his death.

I had another conversation with Henry a year or two earlier about math, physics and the limits of science. He was both intelligent and insightful enough to see beauty beyond truth. At his funeral, Henry's father described his mischievous humor, but also his sensitivity to our world's injustices. One of those injustices is how we stigmatize drug users and treat them as if they deserve misfortune when they fall into addiction. Henry argued for a more just approach, but I doubt he knew the stakes of that debate would grow so tragically high in his own life.