Editorial: Thinking About Drug Policy 3/9/01

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David Borden, Executive Director, borden@drcnet.org

Every now and then something happens that reminds us of why we labor in this cause. It might be an especially unjust prosecution or prison sentence. Maybe someone we know overdosed, or was claimed by drug-related AIDS. It could be a terrifying news report of drug trade violence advancing into yet more unexpected fronts, or of an out of control SWAT team and its unintended victim. Or it might be something good, like a bad law prevented from passing, or a favorable court ruling, or a few more drug war prisoners pardoned or otherwise shown mercy.

This week, I had one of those special experiences that sharpened my focus and resolve as a drug reformer, though not so emotionally riveting as those other examples. What happened was that I participated, as one of five panelists, in a debate on drug legalization, courtesy of the Wake Forest University Law School, baptist country, North Carolina. The debate reconnected me with the purpose of drug reform, by reminding me of just how misinformed our opponents are and how simplistic their thinking is on this issue.

Statements like "70% of cocaine users become addicted on the first try," as the Assistant US Attorney claimed, were only the most over-the-top pieces of misinformation they came up with. Less surprising was the way an extremely complex social phenomenon was characterized with the most over-simplified arguments and unproven assumptions.

For example, a drug prevention specialist on the panel argued that the drug war was working, because use of drugs, as measured by the National Household Survey, had decreased.

A slightly more meaningful analysis would note that: 1) The government's own research shows that these surveys are unreliable and that underreporting of drug use increases as the political and social climate toward drugs becomes harsher; 2) It's only casual use that seems to have decreased, whereas chronic, problematic drug use, which is what we're really concerned with, has remained constant; 3) Other problems, such as drug related AIDS and hepatitis, have dramatically worsened; 4) No one had ever heard of crack cocaine before 1985, and now it's a widespread problem; 4) The street price of illegal drugs has plummeted during the time we've had a "drug war," indicating that drugs are more available than ever before; and 5) More high school students than ever report drugs are easy to obtain -- proving that drugs are more available than ever before, and that drug enforcement and interdiction have therefore failed dramatically for decades.

And more, of course. If that was hard to read, the point is simply that taking one isolated piece of dubious data of secondary importance, and using it to draw broad conclusions about our national drug policy, is not an intelligent or meaningful way to think about this issue. Drug policy needs and deserves the quality of thought that goes into physics, engineering, medicine, archaeology or any other discipline.

Surely the prohibitionists wouldn't drive their cars across a bridge, or move into a house, whose architects had failed to take basic engineering principles into account. That would be a good way to get killed. Yet they have constructed drug policies based on misinformation, framed their arguments at a third-grade level of analysis, and forced them on the entire world. And people are getting killed because of it, and many more are suffering and all of us are paying. Our prohibitionist debate partners clearly agreed on the importance of the drug issue, yet they failed to show that issue the intellectual respect it requires, when doing so would undermine their arguments or contradict their views.

Hence the intellectual leads us back to the emotional. Drug policy reform is an issue and cause that requires sophisticated thought and analysis, and yet it is an issue reaching deep into a well of injustice and suffering in the 20th and 21st centuries. And I am reminded, once again, of the rightness and urgency of our cause. And if I wasn't sure a week ago if I really wanted to take the long drive from Washington to North Carolina, now I'm glad I did.

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Issue #176, 3/9/01 Interview with Steve Kubby | Puerto Rico: Battle Over Island Drug Czar Exposes Fault Lines on Drug Policy | Follow That Story: Harried Thai Government Plans National Summit on Meth Use, Policy Prescriptions Go In All Directions | Conference on the Drug War and People with Disabilities Convenes in Arkansas | European Study of Teen Drug Use Suggests Impact of Drug Policy is: (A) Paradoxical (B) Irrelevant | Marijuana in the Statehouse: Good News and Bad News for Medical Marijuana and Decrim as Legislatures Go To Work | Marijuana Legalization Initiative Rises Again in Michigan, Personal Responsibility Amendment Petition Drive to Kick-Off at Ann Arbor Hash Bash | Job Listings: New York, DC, Michigan | The Reformer's Calendar | Editorial: Thinking About Drug Policy
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