Friday, April 15, 2011

A public dialogue about ending the War on Drugs starts with an agreement on why some are illega

Part 6 – It’s time to negotiate an end to the war on drugs!
If we are going to have a public dialogue about ending the War on Drugs lets start with an agreement on why some are illegal in the first place. In spite of the great harm done by use of alcohol and nicotine, they are legal and their use promoted through millions of dollars in ads as well as public policy and tax laws. The war on drugs is therefore limited to enacting laws against the use of only certain harmful substances, e.g. marijuana, cocaine, heroin, meth, ecstasy, and LSD.
Most of these drugs have been illegal for so long we have forgotten why. Just why is the use of certain mind altering substances made illegal under state and federal criminal law? I “Binged” that question and found some answers. has the usual list.
1.      They are addictive and sometimes can be lethal.
2.      They are found to be harmful both physically and mentally and are dangerous to our health. They can damage brain, heart and other important organs and are particularly harmful to young people whose brains are yet developing.
3.      Drugs hinder our ability to make good decisions. Users do poorly in school, on the job, in family relationships and often engage in criminal conduct as a direct result of their drug use.
4.      People harm others when they use drugs.
5.      Once a person is addicted it is very difficult to stop taking drugs.
You may want to add to that list but my guess is that most additions will fall neatly into one of the five on that list. Everything on the list is accurate. Illegal drugs are addictive, health threatening, cognitive impairing, a source of crime and other chaos and heartache. Once a person migrates from use to abuse and on to addiction, it is difficult to treat the disease.
There is no argument but that illicit drugs impose huge personal and financial losses on us. According to the U.S. Department of Justice National Drug Threat Assessment 2010, “The trafficking and abuse of drugs in the United States affect nearly all aspects of our lives. The economic cost alone is immense, estimated at nearly $215 billion. The damage caused by drug abuse and addiction is reflected in an overburdened justice system, a strained healthcare system, lost productivity, and environmental destruction.”
It is certainly logical that laws would be enacted in an attempt to reduce the negative impacts of drug use. Yet, if that’s why certain drugs are illegal, why are alcohol and nicotine not? They are clearly as addictive and lethal. They also damage the brain and other important organs and are particularly harmful to young people whose brains are yet developing. Alcohol in particular hinders our ability to make good choices and causes chaos and leads to criminal behavior. Anyone who is addicted to either nicotine or alcohol will testify to how difficult it is to quit.
The health care costs from tobacco caused illnesses are nearly 100 billion dollars a year. With all the debate about the costs of Medicaid, legislators seem to ignore the fact that tobacco users run up more than 30 billion dollars in Medicaid claims alone.
Alcohol is the drug most frequently used by 12 to 17 year-olds-and the one that causes the most negative health consequences. Twenty-five to forty percent of all patients in U.S. general hospital beds (not in maternity or intensive care) are being treated for complications of alcohol-related problems. (Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, Columbia University). Annual health care expenditures for alcohol-related problems amount to $22.5 billion. The total cost of alcohol-related problems is $175.9 billion a year (compared to $114.2 billion for other drug problems). Cite: Economic costs of substance abuse, 1995. Dorothy P. Rice. Proceedings of the Association of American Physicians 111(2): 119-125. 1999.
Data gathered by the nation’s drug czar is used to demonstrate more deaths are caused by illegal drugs than by alcohol. But the difference between 38,371 drug related funerals and 23,199 brought about by alcohol abuse seems a thin reed on which to support laws making one drug legal and the others criminal.
So…why some and not the others? Is it all politics? Any scientific or public policy justifications?  How does this dichotomy impact our ability to enforce other drug laws?
Help me out? What are your thoughts?


  1. As I've learned, the history behind why illicit drugs were made illegal in the first place stems from racism, among other things. For example, Chinese discrimination was a factor in banning opioids. Crack was associated with African-Americans and declared dangerous and illegal. And, the banning of marijuana was was partially due to discrimination against Mexicans.

  2. In the early 1990s in Hawaii a native woman told me that she and her father had some ancestral lands in the rain forest on the big island, near Hilo. They used it to grow vegetables until the Air Force dusted everything with Paraquat trying to kill marijuana plants. She told me she asked for damages and was laughed out of the building.An assessment of the Hawaiian economy at the time stated that pot was Hawaii's number one cash crop, outstripping pineapples, etc.

    When our company began random drug testing in the late Nineties some of protested the system they devised, because it would punish you if you were sober yet showed traces of the drugs tested for. This was a high tech and dangerous chemical plant. For employees, being sober at work was all that mattered, and most of us didn't care what anyone did on their time off. The company HR manager told a group of us that controlling our behavior on our days off was one of the goals of the testing program.

    The money given to law enforcement for the drug war is astonishing and will not be given up without a fight.