On NBC's "The West Wing," President Bartlet sees the fight against drugs as a lost cause and a huge waste of money. His surgeon general has declared marijuana less dangerous than cigarettes. His staff overwhelmingly favors legalizing drugs. Meanwhile, in the Oscar-nominated movie, "Traffic," the new drug czar is so rocked by the enormity of the drug problem and his own daughter's addiction that he walks away from the job.
All this makes great entertainment. But it is about as accurate as saying "The Brady Bunch" was a portrait of real life in America.
The fact is, our national strategy against drugs is working. Over the last two years, youth drug use dropped 21%. Workplace drug use has fallen to an 11-year low--4.6%, down from 13.6% in 1988. The number of murders related to narcotics laws dropped from 1,402 in 1989 to 564 in 1999, the lowest point in more than a decade. The number of people receiving drug treatment nearly tripled between 1980 and 1998. Neighborhoods, like New York City's Harlem, have been taken back from the dealers and gangs and, once again, offer safe places for hard-working families to live.
It is true that the number of people arrested for drug crimes has grown, arguably one reason why drug crimes are down. However, at the same time, we have dramatically increased the number of diversion programs to break the cycle of drugs and crime. These programs, such as drug courts, offer nonviolent, drug-addicted offenders supervised treatment in lieu of jail. Ironically, the actor who plays President Bartlet, Martin Sheen, is one of the nation's leading advocates for drug courts and against legalization; he believes that the threat of jail time helped his son break free of addiction.
Contrary to the prevailing wisdom you may see on movie and TV screens, with exceedingly few exceptions, we are not locking people up for simple possession of marijuana. During fiscal year 1998, only 33 federal defendants were sentenced to jail for base offenses involving less than 5,000 grams of marijuana. At the state level, more than 70% of drug offenders were incarcerated for drug trafficking as opposed to possession. An overwhelming majority of the total state prison drug offender population had prior criminal histories, a quarter of which were violent.
Along these same lines, "The West Wing's" surgeon general would be wise to consider new research out of UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center suggesting that marijuana users may be at higher risk for cancer than cigarette smokers. THC, the active component in marijuana, has been shown to cause cancerous tumors. Marijuana deposits four times more tar in the respiratory tract than cigarette smoke. And studies show that young people who smoke pot tend to be lethargic, socially removed, more prone to committing violent and property crimes and do worse in school. None of these effects are equally associated with cigarettes.
President Bartlet's policy team should also take a harder look at the real impact of legalizing drugs. Each year drug use costs the U.S. 52,000 drug-related deaths and roughly $110 billion in additional societal costs. Legalizing drugs would compound this suffering. One of the main reasons why the majority of young people never try drugs is societal disapproval. Legalizing drugs would make drug use an accepted behavior and, inevitably, more young people would use them. More people using drugs would mean more addicts, more traffic fatalities, more human and economic costs.
Nor would legalization cut crime. The average drug criminal isn't waging a turf war over black market territory or shooting it out with the police. Most drug-related crime is committed by addicts to get money to buy drugs--the vast majority of drug users rely to some degree on illicit money to support their addiction. Legalization would only increase the number of people robbing, stealing and prostituting themselves for drug cash.
Shows like "Sports Night," "Dawson's Creek," "ER" and "Third Watch"--some with the sponsorship of the Office of National Drug Control Policy--have done accurate portrayals of the devastating impact of drug use on people, families and friends. However, when the entertainment industry takes dramatic license with the facts about drug use, it has a real impact. Children see drugs as less risky. Parents grow less concerned and talk to their children less frequently about the dangers of drug use. Public support diminishes for the men and women of law enforcement who safeguard our families. Policymakers are less inclined to do what's necessary to fight drugs.
Walking away in disgust from the realities of drug use can add drama to a movie or a TV script, but in the real world it is plain irresponsible.