Opinion

Drug policy, from scratch

Crime, Law and JusticeHealthMedicineJuvenile DelinquencyCrimeJustice SystemJails and Prisons

Today, Sullum and Stimson present their own frameworks for substance control laws in the U.S. Previously, they compared drug legalization and decriminalization, debated the federal government's authority to raid local marijuana dispensaries, discussed past substance use by successful politicians and addressed drug violence.

Lifting prohibition wouldn't make us all addictsBy Jacob Sullum
The ideal drug policy would apply to the currently illegal intoxicants the same distinctions we routinely apply to alcohol: between children and adults, between use and abuse, between abuse that harms only the user and abuse that harms others.

Selling drugs to minors should remain illegal. But adults should be free to decide for themselves what goes into their bodies, provided they do not violate anyone else's rights in the process.

Under such a policy, some people would use currently illegal drugs to excess, just as some people use alcohol to excess. But judging from history, current patterns of alcohol consumption and data on illegal drug use, the vast majority would not.

Until 1914, opiates, cocaine and cannabis were readily and legally available in the United States over the counter and by mail order. They were incorporated into a wide variety of medicines, tonics and popular beverages. Yet even the highest estimates of addiction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, offered by people making the case for prohibition, indicate that heavy users represented less than 1% of the population.

In the case of alcohol, moderation is the rule. About 10% of those who have consumed at least one drink in the last year qualify as "heavy users," meaning they've had five or more drinks on the same occasion on each of five or more days in the last month. The government's own survey data indicate that what's true of alcohol is also true of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine and even heroin: The vast majority of people who try these drugs do not become addicts. In a legal market, the rate of addiction among users would be, if anything, lower, because the people who are most prone to addiction are probably the ones who are least deterred by prohibition. And before you imagine Americans flocking to crack and heroin the moment prohibition is repealed, consider the fact that these are distinctly minority tastes even among illegal drug users, who overwhelmingly prefer marijuana.

Cully, in your first post you accused me of sidestepping "the issue of morality," so let me be explicit. Psychoactive substances are not inherently good or evil; the morality of drug use depends on how the drug is used, for what purpose and in what context. Unwinding at the end of the day or on the weekend by smoking a little marijuana, for example, is morally indistinguishable from doing the same thing with beer, wine or liquor.

Your parade of horror stories, featuring a president high on heroin during a national crisis, meth-addicted child abusers and stoned school bus drivers, obscures the crucial distinction between use and abuse. We could just as easily have a president who is drunk during a national crisis, an alcoholic who beats his kids or an inebriated bus driver. There are ways to deal with such situations that do not require general prohibition. If a drunk wrecks his personal relationships, he pays a social cost; if he screws up at work, he may lose his job; if he assaults someone or endangers others by driving while intoxicated, he can be arrested. But unless his conduct rises to the level of a crime or tort, the law leaves him alone.

The anecdote about your friend "Bob," the lawyer whose alcohol abuse jeopardized his career, family and health but who "got professional help" and is now "a world-class advocate, father and husband," supports my argument. Would Bob have been better off if he had been arrested for alcohol possession and treated like a criminal?

Jacob Sullum, a senior editor at Reason magazine and a nationally syndicated columnist, is the author of "Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use."


Help addicts, reduce supply and demandBy Charles "Cully" Stimson
Jacob,

The ideal drug policy would reduce the demand and supply of illegal drugs -- and deal compassionately and creatively with people addicted to those drugs.

Although your alcohol analogy is intellectually intoxicating, it leaves most of us with a bad hangover. Here's why: Most people who drink alcohol do so in moderation and rarely get intoxicated. They drink to relax, usually in a responsible manner. Some abuse alcohol, and there's an appropriate system in place to deal with those who overindulge. But the main purpose of taking drugs is to get intoxicated. The liabilities and social costs of drug legalization are just too high.

You rightly point out that psychoactive drugs are not inherently good or evil, just like a handgun isn't inherently good or evil. Yet legalizing drugs gives society a green light to get high, and the attendant costs will, over time, far exceed the money we spend now.

First, we need to evaluate our existing policies and programs objectively. Some are a waste of money; they should be eliminated. An effective national drug policy requires leadership from the president. Reducing demand and supply requires a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary approach, not a simplistic wave-the-wand-and-legalize-it tonic.

At a minimum, an effective policy should include early, targeted education and prevention programs, effective treatment and rehabilitation, smart law enforcement strategies, fact-based research and trustworthy international partnerships.

Addicts need our help. Their numbers have remained the same for decades. Eleven years ago, I worked as a drug court prosecutor in San Diego. I watched convicted addicts get clean through a tough-love approach that included mandatory therapy, weekly drug testing and the threat of jail. Prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges worked together with addicts to help them on their journeys from addiction to long-term sobriety. Recidivism rates in drug courts are very encouraging. We need more programs like drug courts.

Drugs in prisons are a big problem. During my years as a prosecutor and defense attorney, it was a given that inmates used drugs in jail. I never saw one person prosecuted for providing drugs to inmates. That needs to change. We need to stop the inflow of drugs to jails and prisons and then develop meaningful education, treatment and rehabilitation programs for inmates who use or are addicted.

Young people need to understand the dangers of illegal drugs through proper educational programs. Programs like the "Just Say No" national campaign in the 1980s helped reduce the use of drugs by young people. That's a good thing, and we need more of it.

The ideal drug policy would create incentives for industry to conduct cutting-edge research in a wide variety of areas. For example, scientists created Dronabinol, a synthetic THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which helps alleviate nausea in cancer patients.

Finally, we need to honestly re-evaluate sentencing policies at the federal and state level. The best sentencing guidelines provide hefty prison terms for suppliers and dealers -- and reasonable flexibility for judges to deal with small-time users. They also provide effective rehabilitation and treatment programs to dissuade future use.

We will never win the poorly named "war on drugs," just like we will never win the battle against child abuse, domestic violence, murder or other crimes. The vast majority of Americans oppose legalization, and with good reason. They know, intuitively, that if you legalize drugs, you will unleash social chaos whose costs are virtually endless.

Charles "Cully" Stimson was a local, state and federal prosecutor, a military prosecutor and defense attorney, and deputy assistant secretary of Defense. Currently, he is a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

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