Editorial: Ignorance Leading to Suffering, Injustice and Death

When discussing the idea of drug legalization with those who are unfamiliar with the issue, I am commonly asked, "Wouldn't more people use drugs if they were legal?" or "Wouldn't all the problems increase if drugs were legal?"

David Borden
The reaction is a simplistic one. It's possible -- not a given -- that drug use will increase after prohibition is ended. But that's the bare beginning of the analysis, not the conclusion of it. Whatever happens to drug use rates, the many devastating harms rising from prohibition will end -- the violence and public disorder of the illegal drug trade, the poisonings and the overdoses from uncertain purity, the desperate straits of addicts who can't afford high street prices, just to name a few. Richard Dennis, a famed financial trader who was an early major supporter of this movement, wrote that addiction rates could double with legalization but the total harm still decrease. I don't know what the math is or if there is any good math on the subject. But even if we knew what would happen with drug use rates or drug addiction rates -- which we don't -- to make that the only measure of the policy, much less the primary one, does not do justice to the complexity or the importance of drug policy.

My prediction is that experimental or casual use of certain drugs would increase, but would mostly involve lower potency forms of the drugs than are widely available now, and would be counter-balanced by decreased use of other currently legal drugs like alcohol (the "substitution" effect). But that's just a guess, albeit an educated one.

Brian Bennett, publisher of the "truth: the Anti-drugwar" web site, featuring extensive compilations and charting of drug war data, pointed out in an e-mail this morning that in 1979, the year when drug use is said to have peaked, there were 7,101 recorded deaths from all illegal drugs combined. In 2004, the latest year for which data is available (and for which Bennett just uploaded a presentation), the total was up to 30,711, more than four times as many. Clearly, there's a lot more to things than mere usage rates.

The stinging report of the UK Drug Policy Commission released this week provides some insight, even if tentative, to the question of whether huge numbers of people would become drug users who are not users now if drugs were legalized. According to the report, which was coauthored by a prominent American academic, Peter Reuter, and a prominent British academic, Alex Stevens, "There is little evidence from the UK, or any other country, that drug policy influences either the number of drug users or the share of users who are dependent." Other factors -- cultural and social, the report cites -- appear to play a more important determining role than laws and policies.

Reuter and Stevens presumably had analyzed the differences only between different prohibitionist systems, since there are no extant legalization systems with which to compare the data. To switch to a legalization system is a more fundamental change than to switch between one prohibition system and another, even between a harsher one like ours and a more tolerant one such as the policies in the Netherlands or Switzerland. Still, at a minimum such a finding calls into question the assumption that drug use would skyrocket following legalization -- it's just not obvious at all that that would happen.

Reuter and Stevens also point out that governments can make a difference in "reducing the levels of drug-related harms… through the expansion of and innovation in treatment and harm reduction services." That is to say, drug-related deaths need not have more than quadrupled in the US during a quarter-century in which the drug-using percentage of the population has decreased, if only policymakers would be a little more thoughtful about what they are doing. That last sentence is my interpretation; I don't want to put words in the authors' mouths. But I think it follows from their own words pretty straightforwardly.

It is understandable for a rank-and-file citizen who hasn't studied drug policy to not immediately show the same degree of sophistication in the issue as a scholar or advocate. After all, many of drug policy reform's basic tenets are counterintuitive -- it did not occur to me that drug legalization could reduce crime until I read about the idea, for example.

But for policymakers to continue to base policies that affect large numbers of people on the most simplistic reactions or slogans is downright irresponsible -- as Bennett's numbers prove. The consequence of ignorance or politicization in drug policy is suffering, injustice and death. Shame on our "leaders" who have willfully allowed it happen.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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Ignorance about Drugs

I have a very close person to me who has multiple sclerosis and has been suffering with it for roughly a year. This disease can cause great pain to an individual. This was true with this person. She has been prescribed every pain killer under the sun. There are few and far between that work. When they work, they typically have worse side effects than there are good things about the medicine. However, marijuana helps her immediately. Her mother, who she is very close to, was vehemently against her marijuana use, even if it helped her due to it being illegal. There was a turning point. She saw f****** MONTEL WILLIAMS on TV saying that it helped with his MS. After that, her mother has been fine with it.

The Data Say Otherwise

The data available to researchers suggest that there will be no increase in drug use should drugs become legalized, either de facto or de jure . Of the 3 countries that have experimented with decriminalization and legalization in the past decade, the actual rates of drug use have fallen in each in every age bracket except for the youngest, and in this case it remained constant. Moreover, crime rates related to drugs (both non-violent and violent) have decreased substantially--and note that the drug crimes themselves like possession were taken into account for both the a priori and a posteriori situation, so you cannot argue that the reason crime has decreased is because possession itself is no longer a crime.

Anywhere we look, we see that people are using drugs regardless of the legal status of drug use at the time. The only situation I am aware of where legal status of drugs has played a part in their level of use is in post World War II Japan, where draconian penalties for simple possession (like execution or life in prison) were levied. And it is difficult to say that post World War II Japan can accurately reflect the Western mindset in a country where freedom is supposed to be paramount, and “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is a line from the initial document declaring our creed: The Declaration of Independence.

MobiusDick, PhD.

"Wouldn't more people use drugs if they were legal?"

Even if more people use drugs. The percent of the population that are abusive to themselves stays the same; approximately 10% of humans will abuse themselves to the point of harm.
In other words the people in the world that are alcohol/drug abusers are already abusing themselves with some drug or alcohol. The number (10% of the population) will stay the same.

here's a way to look at it

There doesn't need to be any type of criminal implication for a drug user. Drugs are harmful. WHY PUNISH SOMEONE WHO IS PUNISHING HIMSELF?!!!! There need to be no other consequences. The punishment is already there, and it is exactly related to how irresesponsible one is. The more you abuse, and the worse a drug you abuse, the worse you will be punished. Making life even worse for an addict by turning him into a criminal is completely unnecessary.

what we should focus on

We should focus on educating people about drugs, and on providing the best possible rehabilitation programs for those addicts who have learned their lesson and are willing to try to get better.

Legalizing Drugs

The only cultural change resulting from the Voldstead Act(prohibition) was the creation of organized crime.Supply and Demand.As long as there is demand there will be supply.The War on Drugs is so absurd that it is beyond comprehension.Like prostitution,drugs are not going away(legalize drugs,eliminate "crack whores".Relieve the burden of AIDS and spend the money on the disease and register addicts.Get them the drugs,tax them and make money.More sense that pretending that they can be eliminated.
The addicts would have medical care(hey and prostitutes,also).Illegal drugs finance terrorist groups and street gangs.Hey about no more innocent children getting killed in drivebys.Get Real.Get Legal and stop the farce.


We must legalize chronic. We are suffering and beating our heads against walls and spending much of taxpayer's money to try to fight the war on drugs. If you were to legalize chronic than much of the fight is gone. It's a plant that grows in the dirt.the dirt. like tomatoes and lettuce and potatoes. It's a natural herb that can help pain and suffering. If salvia is legal than marijuana should be. The effects are far less severe. If people were to open their eyes and see this we could make this legal, grow some chronic mode shit, and tax it and make money off of it. Everyone would be happy. It's a win win situation. Plus crime would go down a whole lot.

Actual vs. pre-existing 'new' users

Under legalization, the number of new users or addicts may well appear to increase. If so, it should immediately raise the question as to whether these new users are in fact new, or just existing users who now feel free to declare their drug use.
I think there would be a curiosity factor...some people will want to try what they've heard so much about. Most people also are aware of the relative addiction potential of various drugs. I can see an 'increase' in cannabis use, comprised of existing users coming out of the closet, and new first-time users, who may or may not use again.

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