We Must Choose To Legalize Drugs

  We Must Choose To Legalize Drugs

Posted by FoM on October 08, 2000 at 17:03:55 PT
By Dan Gardner 
Source: Calgary Herald 

Humans have used psychoactive drugs in just about every society in every time in history. There has never been, and can never be, a "drug-free world." If drug use will always be with us, it follows that the harms drugs can cause will also remain. There is no "solution" to the drug problem. That might sound resigned, but it's not. We still can, and must, make important choices: Which drug-related harms will society cope with? Some are worse than others. 
Given the range of possible drug policies we could adopt, which policies will produce the fewest and least destructive harms? We can't choose solutions, but we can, and do, choose our problems. Beginning in the early 20th century, most countries chose the most extreme policy available: Some drugs were banned and their production, sale, or possession made a crime. The people who originally made this choice believed prohibition would create a drug-free utopia. By that standard, drug prohibition has been a spectacular failure. But the justification for prohibition has evolved Officials who seriously talk of "drug-free societies" are now rare. Instead, government leaders claim prohibition at least keeps down the rate of dug use and thus limits the damage of drugs. To withdraw the criminal prohibition of drugs they say, would send the number of drug users and addicts soaring. Society would suffer horribly. I don't believe that's true. There is no substantial evidence that prohibition keeps down drug use. But what if it were true? Wouldn't criminal prohibition then be the best drug policy? The answer is still no. In the broadest terms, there are two basic drug policies: The first is prohibition, in which the production, sale, and possession of drugs are crimes. The second is legalization. Although many levels of legalization are possible, most supporters of legalization want a policy that regulates drugs at least to the degree that we regulate (but don't ban) other products that can be dangerous to health. Alcohol regulation is often cited as a model. What are the problems caused by these policies? Which is the least harmful? The harms caused by prohibition are many and terrible. Third world countries, where illegal drugs are produced, have to struggle with drug lords and traffickers whose staggering wealth is used to corrupt institutions and pay for private armies to murder opponents. Central governments are weakened, fostering unrest. Billions of dollars that could go to development are wasted on futile fights with traffickers and producers. Eco-systems are ravaged by futile efforts to stamp out drug crops. Many people, often desperately poor, are lured by black-market wealth into a business where they risk prison or death. In this way, Columbia stands at the brink of civil collapse. Mexico and other countries on the traffickers' routes have also suffered economic distortions, violence and corruption. In drug-consuming countries such as Canada, police are frustrated by the impossible task of stopping the flow of drugs, so they ask for and get more powers, eroding everybody's civil liberties in the process. Some succumb to the unique opportunities for corruption presented by black-market drugs. Others turn, in frustration, to vigilante justice - - lying under oath, planting evidence and committing other heinous acts to win an unwinnable war. Prohibition leaves users buying untested, unlabelled drugs that are often tainted, fraudulent or even poisonous. It encourages users to favour the fastest-acting most potent varieties of drugs and use them in the most cost-effective way: injection. It stigmatizes addicts as criminals, pushing them to the margins of society where they can't get the help they need. All of this multiplies fatal overdoses and drug-related deaths, and spreads infections among users. Drug prohibition is a major contributor to the AIDS epidemic. Prohibition fuels petty property crime by forcing addicts to pay black-market prices for drugs. It turns what would otherwise be an ordinary business such as the alcohol industry into one run by criminals who settle business disputes with bullets and bombs, turning streets into battlefields. Prohibition gives organized crime its largest source of revenue and power. Prohibition has cost governments worldwide hundreds of billions of dollars. The U.S. government's anti-drug budget is now more than $20 billion US a year. Of that, almost $13 billion is devoted to fighting the production, distribution, sale and possession of drugs. That doesn't include drug-related state and municipal spending on police, prisons and courts that, by one estimate, has topped $16 billion. Canadian governments don't itemize drug-enforcement costs, but there are indications taxpayers are footing an enormous bill. The RCMP alone has 1,000 officers devoted full time to prohibition. There are drug specialists in all police forces across the country. Add the time spent by regular officers, in the RCMP and all other police forces, dealing with illegal drugs in the course of their duties. And the specialist who fight organized crime, including the many officers who have spent years trying to cope with Quebec's biker war. The customs officials searching for drugs at borders - and putting a drag on the economy as they slow cross-border traffic - are also part of the bill. And the forensic accountants tracking money laundering. And the judges and court officials processing almost 70,000 drug charges each year. And the guards needed to watch over the nine per cent of Canadian prisoners behind bars for drug crimes. The loss of fundamental liberty is surely prohibition's greatest harm. These direct monetary costs are only half of what we pay. There is also all the good that could have been done if these vast resources had been available for other priorities. And lastly, there is the fundamental injustice of imprisoning people simply for choosing to take a substance not approved by the state, or for selling that substance to those who choose to buy it. If the right to control one's own life means anything, it must include the right to choose what to ingest. The loss of fundamental liberty is surely prohibition's greatest harm. This is a short summary of a much longer list. But it's enough to weigh against the harms of legalization. If legalization did not cause an increase in drug use - and I do not think it would cause one - the argument is over. But what if it did cause a significant increase in drug use? Would legalization inflict equal or worse harms and costs than prohibition? To answer, we must distinguish between use and abuse. Drug-law enforcers refer to all illegal drug use as "abuse", but this is inaccurate. Drug use that does not harm or impair one's health, work or relationships is generally considered mere, "use". Consumption that hurts the user or others is "abuse". Most of us recognize the line between "use" and "abuse" of alcohol. Dr. Harold Kalant, professor emeritus in the faculty of medicine at the University of Toronto and researcher emeritus with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, says that alcohol abusers make up between 10 to 15 per cent of the total. Between five and eight per cent of problem drinkers are addicted, he says, while the other alcohol abusers drink in ways that are harmful to themselves or others - drinking and driving, for example, or binge drinking that interferes with work or family life. That means 85 or 90 per cent of alcohol users generally consume without significant harm. The same line between use and abuse exists with illegal drugs. Kalant estimates that the ratio of use to abuse of marijuana is roughly the same as for alcohol. But drugs such as cocaine and heroin are more addictive than alcohol and so, Kalant says, instead of a 10- or 15-per cent abuse rate, "you're more likely talking of 30 per cent or more".(Only one drug causes addiction among a majority of its users: nicotine.) That's a rough estimate. Unlike alcohol, we don't have detailed pictures of illegal drug users and the effects of their use, for the obvious reason that users tend to avoid attention. But it appears the majority of users of illegal drugs do not abuse them, and their consumption of drugs, like consumption of alcohol, generally has no serious ramifications. "If you're a light, casual user," notes Kalant, "you probably don't have any significant health effects." There may be more involved in these numbers, he cautions, than just the effects of illegal drugs. He says the very fact that some drugs have been made illegal gives them an anti-social image which may attract people inclined to seek novelty and danger. And "people like that", he says, "may be more at risk (of problem use) than others." Thus, the abuse rates we see with illegal drugs may be higher than they would be if the drugs were legal. None of this detracts from the real dangers of drug use. It's difficult for a drug user to know in advance, for example, if he is one of the minority of users who is susceptible to addiction. And some methods of drug-taking are dangerous in themselves, injection, for example, risks infection. And even casual, light use of some drugs may pose small risks of serious harms. Synthetic drugs such as ecstasy, for example, haven't been well-studied, but there is evidence that even one dose has, on rare occasions, done grave harm. These risks alone are reason enough to avoid drug use. But the distinction between use and abuse puts things in perspective. In the unlikely event that legalization led to an increase in drug use, the majority of that increase would be casual use: health and social consequences would not be daunting. Those who see drugs as a moral issue may still consider an increase in casual use unacceptable. But for people concerned only with limiting the individual and social damage of drug use, such an increase should not cause great alarm. How many people are having a Saturday night toot of cocaine doesn't matter nearly so much as how many people are ending up in the morgue. Current drug policy cares far too much about the former, and not nearly enough enough about the latter. The American government, for one, celebrates the fact that casual cocaine use is down from its peak - while staying remarkably silent about the fact that drug-related deaths are at a record high. Of course, a rise in casual drug use might also be accompanied by a smaller rise in addiction. That would obviously be a major concern, but that, too, must be put in context. Most of the horrific harms that we now associate with addiction - overdose deaths, crime, homelessness, infections, marginalization - stem for the most part from the criminal prohibition of the drugs that the addict depends on, not from the drugs themselves. Eliminate prohibition and these harms will go as well. This is not to treat addiction lightly. Even with legal access to clean drugs and good health care, addiction is a serious burden on health and relationships. But addiction would not mean, as it so often does now, squalour, fear, and early death. With the proper health-care and social programs, individuals and society could cope. It would not be an overwhelming crisis. So let's compare the harms of two drug policies: prohibition and legalization. Prohibition inflicts a horrendous cost, in lives and suffering and wasted effort, all over the world. And legalization? Even under the false assumption that it would cause an increase in drug use, legalization would lead to an increase in casual use, perhaps accompanied by a rise in addiction: the former would inflict modest personal and social harms, while the harms of the latter would be more painful but still manageable. Which policy causes the least harm? For anyone who looks at the question intently and honestly, the answer is clear. A 1998 letter sent to the United Nations by hundreds of statesmen, Nobel laureates, and drug experts put the answer bluntly: "We believe that the global war on drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself." That's a conclusion that more and more public health experts, researchers, and even politicians are coming to as well. "The criminalization of drug use does not achieve the goals it aims for," said Dr. David Roy of the University of Montreal when he and others released a major report in 1999 looking at drug use and AIDS. "It causes harms equal to or worse than those it is supposed to prevent." In 1933, Americans came to exactly that conclusion about the attempt to ban alcohol. They remembered the real harms done by alcohol before it was banned in 1920. But they also saw those harms weren't nearly as terrible as the damage done by Prohibition itself. Being able to contrast the two situations, Americans decided to legalize alcohol. We can't draw on personal memory as Americans did in 1933, but we can look carefully at the evidence. It's a difficult task. It may mean uprooting comfortable assumptions and old ways off thinking. But so many have needlessly suffered and died. More will follow. Surely we owe them at least the willingness to try. Note: Dan Gardner is a member of the Ottawa Citizen's Editorial Board.News Article Courtesy Of MapInc. Calgary Herald (CN AB)Published: October 7, 2000Author: Dan GardnerFax: (403) 235-7379Copyright: 2000 Calgary HeraldContact: letters theherald.southam.caAddress: P.O. Box 2400, Stn. MCalgary, Alberta T2P 0W8Forum: Site: Articles - Dan Gardner:

Home Comment Email Register Recent Comments Help

Comment #12 posted by nl5x on October 09, 2000 at 15:02:16 PT
interview with Barry McCaffrey by nl5x mccaffrey you have said that legalizing drugs would lead to higher drug use. if drugs were legalized tomorrow which one would you do first?A.UHHH WELL UHHH I UHHH UHHH, I GOTA GO!THIS IS THE QUESTION TO POSE TO ANYONE WHO CLAIMS TO KNOW THAT LEGALIZATION WOULD INCREASE DRUG USE.
[ Post Comment ]

Comment #11 posted by ras james on October 09, 2000 at 12:49:31 PT
"estimates the ratio..."
the ratio of abuse for alcohol is much greater than it is for cannabis sativa. i am 57 years old; and all i have to do is look at the history of my famity, friends, and former students...many sad stories of alcohol and cigarette abuse.i give all praise and thanks to the ALMIGHTY for the healing herb, cannabis sativa, that broke my chains of addiction to an alcoholic babylon.
[ Post Comment ]

Comment #10 posted by kaptinemo on October 09, 2000 at 07:13:20 PT:
'Voices crying in the wilderness' more
Friends, another prediction:Within a year, there will be, largely due to the new series on illicit drugs on both the History Channel and PBS this week, a renewed interest on the part of the pols in debating this matter openly. Right now, they scurry away like cockroaches at the prospect that they might be queried about the WoSD. But if sufficient public pressure builds because the media has dragged the subject from its' political exile (and put it squarley in the face of the public), then we will begin to see some pols rediscovering their brains and guts, and joining Governors Johnson and Ventura in calling for rational approaches. Any refusal on a pols' part to face this issue (as it should have been decades ago) after these programs are aired will be seen for the political cowardice that it is. But the media require encouragement; they are like a mob. They make tenative moves only when they think it safe..or when one of their own is assailed. But when they think they can get away with it, they'll rush the DrugWar barricades. And the battle will be half over.I would strongly suggest to all who read this to watch these programs, then *write in to the producers and station managers*. Let them know that in your humble opinion, they have more than fulfilled their obligation to offer 'programming in the public interest' (which is what FCC regs require, so this will make them very happy) and that you want to see more of it.This is our chance. The steel is glowing, white-hot; the anvil is ready; do we have the strength to lift the hammer?
[ Post Comment ]

Comment #9 posted by Phyro on October 09, 2000 at 01:32:20 PT
What's Next ???
Our Babalon Goverment is abought to fall hard...It's time for us to VOTE thease Snake Charmers out of power.there nothing but flim flam men and don't need our VOTE'S !lets do the right thing by giving thease Bums the old Heave Ho.
[ Post Comment ]

Comment #8 posted by military officer guy on October 08, 2000 at 20:34:27 PT
this guy rocks...
i don't know who this dan guy is, but i really think his ideas make are right on...we can win this war...
[ Post Comment ]

Comment #7 posted by observer on October 08, 2000 at 20:04:50 PT
re: Drug Legalization
Only a pothead could have written thisHe didn't mention if he used cannabis or not ... or did I miss something there? I like the way Mr Gardner writes. I can only hope and pray that other editors like him, in the US, will take heart and run some similar series. 
Gateway Theory (diagram)
[ Post Comment ]

Comment #6 posted by FoM on October 08, 2000 at 19:54:46 PT
Cannabis Seeds
Thanks observer, This is an interesting topic for me. I saw a mummy on another program a while ago that in the burial chamber was something like a jewelry box of our time and it contained Cannabis Seeds! Also I believe it was the Iceman that his cloak was made from Hemp! 
[ Post Comment ]

Comment #5 posted by Sue Brownley on October 08, 2000 at 19:41:30 PT
Drug Legalization
Only a pothead could have written this. 
[ Post Comment ]

Comment #4 posted by observer on October 08, 2000 at 19:17:51 PT
Cocaine Mummies of Egypt!
That reminded me FoM ... I heard once that Egyptian mummies regularly turn up positive for various drugs, time after time. Mummy knows best?!
[ Post Comment ]


Comment #3 posted by FoM on October 08, 2000 at 18:58:11 PT

Desert Mummies of Peru

We just watched The Desert Mummies of Peru on The Discovery Channel and what is so fascinating to me is that they buried the Mummy, that they showed on the program, which was an older person, with pottery in his stomach filled with Coca Leaves and they also found Coca Leaves in his mouth! Sometimes I really wonder how the drug war has gotten this bad. In the jungle or in the desert,wherever mummies are discovered in Peru, bioanthropologist Dr. Sonia Guillen is called. Sonia has led a team to uncover, excavate and study the remains of the Chachapoya — a cache of mummies found in the cloud-covered forest of the Peruvian Andes. And in the desert of southern Peru, Sonia and a team of archaeologists sift through the sand around the mummified remains of the Chiribaya for clues about a past culture. The Chiribaya lived over 1,000 years ago — their bodies should have decayed long ago. Instead, these "accidental mummies" have survived to tell their stories.
[ Post Comment ]


Comment #2 posted by Occassional Pot User on October 08, 2000 at 18:25:04 PT:

pHEAR Dan Gardner!

bow down and phear him.
[ Post Comment ]


Comment #1 posted by Ethan Russo, MD on October 08, 2000 at 18:12:15 PT:

Hail Dan!

This guy should run for prime minister of Canada!
[ Post Comment ]

  Post Comment

Name:       Optional Password: 
Comment:   [Please refrain from using profanity in your message]

Link URL: 
Link Title: