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Legalization, Deregulation, Harm Reduction, or Prohibition: What is to be Done with Illicit Drugs?

In May of 2001, the U.S. State Department announced a grant to the Afghanistan government of forty-three million dollars as a way of rewarding it for declaring opium poppies illegal to cultivate [1]. Before a year passed, the United States military had decimated that same government because of its sponsorship of international terrorism.

After September 11, terrorism became the new enemy, worthy of fighting for a seemingly endless period of time. Despite this, however, the United States government has one enemy even more vilified and hated than even terrorism. Advertising campaigns were launched before the rubble of the World Trade Center had stopped smoldering, ads that pointed the finger of blame passed the terrorists who organized the attack, passed the governments that supported them, passed the State Departmentís payment of those governments, and towards this ever-popular and unbeatable foe: drugs.

We all know the story. We all grew up with the same morality forced down our throat. Drugs are pure evil. They are more than just bad for you; they corrupt your children, result in heavier drug-use, rip families apart, support moral decay, promote sexual promiscuity leading to unwanted pregnancy and STDs, finance violent cartels, encourage murder and rape, and, now, they are responsible for terrorism. We must destroy this horrible scourge upon society, despite the fact that drug use is as old as mankind.

"Drug misuse is not a disease, it is a decision, like the decision to step out in front of a moving car. You would not call that a disease but an error of judgment."
-- Philip K. Dick (from A Scanner Darkly)

"A drug is neither moral nor immoral - it's a chemical compound. The compound itself is not a menace to society until a human being treats it as if consumption bestowed a temporary license to act like an asshole."
-- Frank Zappa (from The Real Frank Zappa Book)

"Annual drug deaths: tobacco: 395,000, alcohol: 125,000, 'legal' drugs: 38,000, illegal drug overdoses: 5,200, marijuana: 0. Considering government subsidies of tobacco, just what is our government protecting us from in the drug war?"
-- Ralph Nader

"Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."
-- Barry Goldwater

"The cost of liberty is less than the cost of repression."
-- W.E.B. Dubois

"The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground."
-- Thomas Jefferson

"The history of liberty is a history of the limitation of governmental power, not the increase of it."
-- Woodrow Wilson
On the morning of September 22, 2002, in an effort to fight the great War on Drugs, five federal agents pointed their assault rifles at the sleeping head of Suzanne Pfeil--a 44-year-old paraplegic who is terminally ill, allergic to most medicinal pain killers, and living in Santa Cruz, California--and then handcuffed her to her bed for an hour while they raided her home in what would be remembered by many as a shocking turning point in popular opinion about the war. Despite the fact that Suzanne could not move her legs or get out of bed, despite the fact that neither she nor her hospice were doing anything against state law, and despite the fact that the marijuana grown at the hospice was not bought from, sold to, or connected in any way with criminal organizations or terrorism, Pfeil was defying the United States of America in its moral battle with the most villainous of all evils. [2, 3]

Her story is not unique. In fact, the plight of people like her has caused many to re-evaluate our governmentís stance on drugs and has brought proposals to the average voter about changing that stance on a state level. Some states have passed laws making medicinal uses of marijuana legal, and, just last year, Nevada came pretty close to making it legal to possess up to 3 ounces of marijuana for recreational use.

In that state, the president of the Nevada Conference of Police and Sheriffs, Andy Anderson, endorsed voting yes to Question 9 on the state ballot, which would relax the hard-line criminalization of marijuana. He argued that the police had more important crimes to prosecute than minor marijuana possession and, only days after saying that, was forced to resign [3, 4]. Like Suzanne Pfeil, he was getting in the way of the war and had to pay a price for it.

Opposition to the strict criminalization of marijuana, though, comes from more than just concerned citizens of this country. Despite global drug prohibition, which is a reality that exists in every single nation on the planet [5], many nations (including Britain and Canada) have passed legislation decriminalizing or deregulating marijuana. Furious about this trend, Asa Hutchinson, director of the DEA, has said, "We have great respect for Canada and Britain as well, and if they start shifting policies with regards to marijuana it simply increases the rumblings in this country that we ought to re-examine our policy. It is a distraction from a firm policy on drug use." [6]

With all due respect to Mr. Hutchinson, I find myself wondering why a re-examination of our policy would be the horrible thing that he implies it would be. After all, our re-examination of the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution caused us to repeal it, and wasnít that a good thing?

Iím not saying that drugs should be made universally legal. Nor am I saying that they arenít bad for you. I am simply saying that this war is interfering with our citizensí freedom of choice (also known as liberty). We have the choice to drink enough alcohol to get us drunk and fall down a stairwell, and that choice comes with its own consequences and responsibility. Despite this, however, we do not have the choice to light up a joint in our home and fall asleep stoned with an empty box of Cheerios on our lap and infomercials on the television, because, clearly, the consequences of that action are too great for us to be able to handle. I am saying that this is hypocritical.

How can we be sure that the War on Drugs is less detrimental than a more decriminalized attitude towards these substances? We exhaust more economic resources in this war than you would believe, and what real results, if any, can we show for it? Have we put so much as a single dent in the human tendency to use substances as an unhealthy escape mechanism? Can we show any signs of victory for forced personal morality?

Psychology (or, at least, basic behaviorism) teaches that humans operate on a system of learned responses to behavior. If something feels bad, we avoid it, and, if something feels good, we do it. Criminologists argue that this principle is one of the things driving the effectiveness of law, since it does not feel good to be punished for illegal acts.

It is statistically valid to say that illegal drug use can lead to non-drug-related criminal behavior. The reason for this is simple, and it has nothing to do with the natural side effects of drug use. The reason is that drugs are illegal. By combining something that feels good, both physically and mentally, with something that society encourages people to avoid, we have created a self-sustaining and undefeatable cycle of social depravity.

They say that marijuana is a gateway drug, and I have to agree. However, the reason itís a gateway drug is because it is illegal.

The process of addiction makes the cycle all that much worse, since, when the initial high of sustained drug use turns into a monotonous battle to keep oneself from feeling worse, the drug addict will seek new avenues of pleasure. Once tired of progressing from more and more damaging drugs, the addict will most likely turn to crime, because he has unconsciously learned that crime, assuming he doesnít get caught, has its rewards.

Crime feels good--anybody whoís enjoyed an illegal drug can attest to it--and, if something feels good, we do it.

So I ask you again, how can we be sure that the War on Drugs is less detrimental than a more decriminalized attitude towards these substances? How many people die every year as a result of organized drug crime? How does that number compare to the number of people who die because of the direct results of drug use? Is this drive to legislate a certain realm of personal morality really worth so much effort and death? Did we learn nothing from alcohol prohibition?

The United States Supreme Court failed to prove that there was enough risk to justify drug-testing political candidates [7], and yet we are told that illegal drugs destroy the very fiber of society. The same government that gave four-hundred-forty million dollars to a Colombian military with ties to narco-terrorism claims that the drug user is responsible for funding terrorism [1]. No one has been able to prove that marijuana has the physical power to kill, and yet it is more fatally illegal than tobacco cigarettes because the government has made it a sovereign right to protect you from yourself. How much hypocrisy and how many lies can the American people really take?

LINKS/SOURCES:
(This list does not represent the entirety of my research on this subject)
1. FOXNews.com: Drug War Terrorism
2. Detroit Free Press: A serious look at wacky weed...
3. CNN.com: The New Politics Of Pot
4. USA Today: Measure gambles on marijuana
5. HereInstead.com: The Secret of Worldwide Drug Prohibition
6. Washington fumes as Canada moves to decriminalize pot
7. Chandler v. Miller, 520 U.S. 305 (1997)
8. 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs
9. 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances
10. 1988 Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances

-e. magill, 05/05/2003
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