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Commentary : Legalization Will Save Lives, Money and Hurt Only the Drug Dealers

<i> William C. Anderson M.D. practices in Laguna Beach and is director of the Student Health Service at UC Irvine</i>

It happened again last week. Mid-30s, new patient dripping with golden chains around his neck and wrists drives into my office parking lot in his late-model German luxury sports car, then waits nervously for his appointment.

In the examination room he tells me that his heart keeps racing, he can’t sleep and his $1,000-per-week cocaine habit has him in trouble with his creditors. He has been through two very expensive in-patient treatment programs--and flunked.

Can I prescribe a pill? Can I help him sleep? Can I do something about his heart rate? Later my office manager told me he did not pay his bill because he just wrote his last check for a late payment on that German luxury sports car, and his attorney has demanded $10,000 “up front” to represent him at his pending court appearance.

It will soon become necessary to abandon the present approach to the management of drug abuse and the business it has spawned.

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The limits of law enforcement and our prisons have been far exceeded, and the system that is predicated on the criminalization of illicit drug use is obviously not working.

Tougher laws aimed at users, and the control of the importation and production of drugs such as heroin, cocaine and marijuana, have simply made the business more exciting and more profitable; the less the supply, the greater the demand, the higher the stakes, the bigger the game.

The current approach of the war on drugs, despite the best of intentions, has resulted, ironically, in upping the ante and escalating the problem. There is no end in sight.

The drastic solution lies in the destruction of criminal incentive: Legalize the product, as alcohol was legalized with the repeal of Prohibition, and the illegal profit motive virtually disappears. Then the violence associated with criminal and police activities that stem from the illegal nature of this incredible “business” will be replaced with the tedium of operating a giant registration and surveillance system.

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Legalization will not simply eliminate the problem; it will create new problems much less deadly and expensive--and much more manageable.

What to do about users who will have legitimate access to abused substances? What to do with the huge and expensive, heavily manned law-and-order machine that now exists?

Register the users, manage a registration and surveillance system with the budget and personnel now enforcing and use the surplus for education of the young and treating drug users who are not really criminals but medically sick people.

Registered drug users would buy, at minimal cost, high-grade, non-contaminated drugs produced by licensed--and taxed--growers. Registered drug users will forfeit their rights to drive airplanes, buses and cars, to attend certain professional schools and to perform jobs that involve defined levels of technical skill and personal and public safety.

Education begins in the grade schools. Registration is offered at age 21. A testing system will monitor former users who, after rehabilitation or recovery, request restoration of their rights.

Those recidivists caught by police trying to manipulate or evade the system will then be subject to legal action and punitive consequences. I predict that there will soon be plenty of room in the prisons to accommodate them.

How drastic is this proposal? Consider the scope and drastic escalation of the drug problem, despite its high priority on federal, state and local government agenda. This proposal incorporates the elements of a much-needed change in direction for all of the intentions, efforts, dollars and man and woman power that are proving ineffective in the war against one of the major diseases of our time.

England has addressed heroin use in this manner. I suggest that we study and learn from that experience, improve upon it if possible and apply it to heroin, cocaine and marijuana in stepwise fashion.

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Curiously enough, I suspect that one of the largest lobbies against legalization will be the criminals who profit from the present system.

The drug businessmen will make their pressure felt indirectly through representatives in established areas of businesses that have come to depend upon money laundering as a major cash-flow factor in their operations.

On the other hand, the demolition of the drug business will be welcomed by management in the world of banking and securities and in the real estate industry. The drug business has generated an administrative monster of surveillance and reporting procedures in response to government mandates.

Nobody with integrity is going to miss the deaths, the life tragedies, the violence and greed that the trade in illegal drugs will abet and preserve. Yet I predict that it will be difficult to find elected officials willing to support legalization of abused substances until enough of us who do honest work for a living ask them to.


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