Looking for honesty in the War on Drugs

By Richard Page

The United States needs to call for an armistice in the war on drugs and move toward legalization. Alarmists argue that drug use would skyrocket, yet numerous reports show that this is not the case. For example, a 1990 U.S. telephone survey of 1,401 adults found that under legalization, 90.4 percent would not try marijuana, and 98.3 percent would not try cocaine. Based on addiction estimates, this means that 99.54 percent of adults in the United States would not be addicted to marijuana, and 99.83 percent would not be addicted to cocaine.

Even when cocaine was legal and widely available in the United States (pre-1914 Harrison Act), per capita dependence was lower than what it is today. There are other factors—besides the law—that inhibit people from using drugs. Drug expert Robert J. MacCoun has suggested, “Even in the absence of formal legal controls, informal social control and self-control factors might prevent most people from serious drug involvement.” Proponents of war on drugs largely ignore this reality.

State and federal governments are spending $35 billion a year on drug control. At least three-quarters of these funds are being used to apprehend and punish drug dealers and users. Each additional drug-offending inmate costs $75,000 in new prison construction and another $25,000 a year to house and feed. A shift toward decriminalization and drug treatment would be more fiscally responsible. Cost-benefit ratios for public drug treatment programs range from $3 to $7 for each dollar of funding. Best of all, drug excise taxes could be used to support treatment programs.

Also, legalization would allow for regulation of such drugs. Currently, most heroin overdoses are a result of uncertainty of potency, which would be avoided in a regulated market. Moreover, in an effort to curb the spread of HIV, legalization would allow the United States to follow Britain’s lead in providing free needles to its addicts.

Additionally, further studies could be done to determine the practicality of using marijuana and cocaine for medicinal purposes. Studies have already concluded that marijuana is effective in improving the appetites of AIDS and cancer patients, and that cocaine can be used as an anesthetic in throat and eye operations.

It would be fatuous to assume that a change in policy would eliminate all harms associated with drug usage. Utopia does not exist. However, superior alternatives to the ill-advised status quo do exist. The strategy that best promotes overall harm reduction must be pursued. Regulated and restricted legalization, coupled with increased drug education and treatment opportunities, are the most logical responses to this conundrum.

As myopic as today’s politicians may be, they are not purblind to the point of actually believing in the current strategy. Rather, their hands are tied. They are stuck pandering to what their constituents ask for. A 1995 Gallup poll of U.S. citizens revealed that 84 percent favored “making criminal penalties more severe for the possession and sale of drugs.”

It is no coincidence that the vast majority of drug legislation has been enacted in election years. In the months leading up to the 1986 midterm elections, Congress worked on a sweeping anti-drug measure that was signed by Ronald Reagan just days before voters went to the polls. Congressional Quarterly commented, “Republicans and Democrats all across the country are trying to outdo each other…to see who can propose the most stringent punishments for drug infractions.” Representative Dave McCurdy (D-Oklahoma) conceded that the 1986 drug bill was “out of control,” yet voted for it anyway. The 1988 bill was no different. Representative Tim Valentine (D-North Carolina) regarded it as the “seeds of national disaster.” Yet he admitted, “Rather than have people say, ‘Well, that guy, he’s in favor of drugs,’ I’ll hold my nose and go along with the others.” The outspoken John McCain (R-Arizona) commented, “This is such an emotional issue…that voting ‘no’ would be too difficult to explain.” New York State Representative Charles Schumer added, “It’s quick-hit image over substance, and nobody cares if it’s going to work.”

During the presidential debates of 1988, Bush (Sr.) declared that, “We have to be tougher on those who commit crimes. We have to get after the users more.” Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis countered this by suggesting that he had “a program for being tough…doubling the number of drug enforcement agents.” This constant election year competition for who can be the toughest on drugs just escalates the war further and further.

Only Libertarian presidential candidate Michael Badnarik can be trusted to speak directly about this issue. His campaign website states that under his leadership, “Nonviolent drug offenders would be released from federal prison, and each state would choose its own drug policy.” As the 2004 election will prove, sometimes a third party is needed to advocate such necessary reforms.