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A More Sensible Drug Policy

Michael J. Ring

There are very few issues in American politics that generate such hyperbole and draconian rhetoric as our nation’s drug policy. For the past twenty years, the typical tough-on-drugs tripe has been a staple of political debates and campaigns.

But in the latter half of this decade have come a few chinks in the armor of the drug warriors, openings which should force us to rethink this nation’s war on drugs. Propositions allowing for the use of medical marijuana have passed -- in some cases by overwhelming margins -- in Alaska, Arizona, California, the District of Columbia, Oregon, Nevada, and Washington. The always-outspoken Reform Party governor of Minnesota, Jesse Ventura, has suggested decriminalizing drugs such as marijuana and treating possession of these substances as a civil infraction, much like a speeding ticket. But Governor Gary Johnson of New Mexico -- a Republican, no less -- has upped the ante further, calling for the legalization of marijuana and heroin. The 2000 elections will no doubt bring even more referenda on legalizing or decriminalizing drugs.

The war on drugs is a failure. Illicit substances are still widely available all across the country. While overall rates of illegal drug use have declined, deaths from these drugs have increased in recent years to 9,000 annually. Most frighteningly, drug use among teens -- the group most vulnerable to the dangers of illicit drugs -- is on the rise.

This failed war has been an expensive boondoggle. Federal anti-drug spending has ballooned from $1.5 billion in 1981 to $17 billion this year. State and local governments will waste another $20 billion on this doomed effort.

Even worse, most of this budget has gone not to education or research. The majority of this money has been spent on law enforcement, prisons, and the other cruel instruments of prohibition. Author Dan Baum notes that of 1.1 million people arrested in the United States in 1990, about 264,000 -- almost 25 percent -- were charged with possession of marijuana. No wonder our courts are strained and our prisons overflowing. Between 1990 and 1995, as the average jail sentence for drug crimes nearly doubled (47.1 months to 85.4 months), the average time served for violent crimes actually declined (125.4 months to 92.3 months). Nearly 400,000 men and women are jailed in this country as nonviolent drug offenders.

The answer to the war on drugs is not prohibition but regulation. The legalization of several substances under certain bounds specified by the government is the best way to control drug use in this country.

First, regulation reduces the awful toll of deaths caused by the underground improper use of many substances. DAMIT -- Drugs at MIT -- recognizes the need for this new approach in the wake of the death of Richard Guy ’99. Regulation emphasizes an education policy, one which informs potential users of the risks and hazards of each drug and gives them instructions insuring the safest possible use.

Second, regulation destroys the corrupt underground economy of drug trafficking. Allowing limited means by which substances may be legally available ends the need for a black market.

Third, a more sensible drug policy frees billions of dollars, money which can be used to combat truly violent and dangerous criminals or be put to any other use society wishes.

In the early part of this century, many people felt that alcohol was so dangerous that they successfully lobbied for a constitutional prohibition on its manufacture. Their efforts only drove drinking underground into speakeasies. Additionally, the prohibition was a golden opportunity for organized crime to expand its reach and grab control of liquor trafficking. After a little more than a decade, the American people realized prohibition of alcohol was a failure and chose government regulation over an outright ban. When will we learn from the past and realize that government regulation is the best way to control drugs today?

Prohibition of the more benign substances, such as marijuana, makes absolutely no sense. Marijuana is not physically addictive and arguably poses less danger to the user than alcohol and tobacco, two legally available drugs. While marijuana should be subject to legal controls similar to those of alcohol and tobacco, no one’s interests are served by its prohibition. The government has many, many more fundamental interests to pursue than locking up as criminals those who simply enjoy an occasional joint.

Some drugs, such as cocaine, crack, and heroin, are so dangerous as to preclude any thoughts of legalization. But the conduct of government drug control needs to change here as well. Rather than focusing on costly punishment schemes, society should redouble its efforts to educate people about the use and risks of these drugs. As groups such as DAMIT recognize, fully informing users about the associated hazards is the most sensible anti-drug policy. At the very least, this open information minimizes the number of people driven underground into unsafe scenarios, and may cause many users to think twice about their habits. These tactics will pay far more dividends than the current witchhunt of nonviolent drug users.

After billions of dollars wasted and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people incarcerated as a result of America’s draconian drug policies, it’s time for a change. Let’s advance a reasonable drug policy based on regulation and education as the best way to fight the war on drugs.