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Drugs: To Legalize or Not

John P. Walters

Justified alarm over drug-related Mexican border violence has led to the predictable spate of drug legalization proposals. The most prominent was a call by three former Latin American presidents — from Brazil, Colombia and Mexico — to end what they claimed was the drug war. While there are many “end the drug war” plans, all of them, as even their advocates admit, result in more drug use and addiction. Their response? We should emasculate prevention and law enforcement and just spend more on treatment.

What would America look like with twice or three times as many drug users and addicts? To answer, consider what America was like in the recent past, during the frightening epidemic of methamphetamine, so similar to the crack outbreak of the 1980s. Each was a nightmare, fueled by ready drug availability.

Americans can’t forget the meth epidemic hitting the heartland earlier this decade. In 2004, 1.4 million people said they had used methamphetamine in the past year, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The powerful, long-lasting stimulant began growing rapidly as the make-it-yourself drug, using a precursor in over-the-counter cold medicine. It later was produced in large quantities by Mexican traffickers and smuggled into the U.S. Drugs weren’t just an urban problem anymore.

Addiction, violence and drug poison hammered middle America. The addiction epidemic shattered families and created a staggering toll of family violence. Effective laws got the addicted into treatment through the courts, and thereby saved lives. In parallel, we deployed targeted prevention measures and, importantly, used law enforcement and regulation to cut meth production dramatically. As a result, use (as measured by workplace drug testing and youth surveys) and supply (as measured by the Drug Enforcement Administration) dropped sharply: by 60% or more between 2002 and 2008.

Cocaine and crack present a comparable case study. Urban policy experts on the left and right — who agree about little else — have a united view of what cocaine and crack did to our urban poor. Pushing back against crack made urban life better for all Americans.

The violence essential to drug trafficking is meant to be shocking — from the marijuana traffickers who brutally murdered DEA special agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena in Mexico in 1985 to the viciousness of rolling heads across a dance floor — calculated to frighten decent citizens and government authorities into silence.

The violence of traffickers, which has harmed tens of thousands, is dwarfed by the millions harmed by another violence, that done daily by those in our own communities under the influence of drugs. Roughly 80% of child abuse and neglect cases are tied to the use and abuse of drugs. It is not that drug abuse causes all crime and violence, it just makes it much worse by impairing judgment, weakening impulse control and at some levels of pathology, with some drugs, causing paranoia and psychosis. Well more than 50% of those arrested today for violent and property crimes test positive for illegal drug use when arrested. Legalized access to drugs would increase drug-related suffering dramatically.

The origins of federal drug laws were a response to disastrous drug and violence epidemics when virtually every family had access to opiate- and cocaine-based remedies around the end of the 19th century. Drugs were available without penalty. Addiction was rampant, with an estimated 250,000 opiate addicts in the U.S. population of 76 million.

Or if you really think that prohibition causes the problem, remember that ancient China was brought to its knees by easy access to opium. Today, even highly traditional and regulated societies like Thailand, Malaysia, Iran and Afghanistan are suffering terrible addiction problems — because heroin is addictive and easily accessible. Making highly addictive drugs easier to get and use is what makes this harm greater.

Although cynics on the left and right assert the drug problem is as big or bigger than ever, it is simply not true. Illegal drug use is still a problem, but by any fair assessment it is a smaller problem. Half as many teens are using drugs than 30 years ago and a quarter fewer than seven years ago, according to the Monitoring the Future, an ongoing study conducted by the University of Michigan under grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Cocaine and meth use are less than half what they were at their peak. Even drug offenders are a smaller percentage of the prison population than they were 15 or even seven years ago.

What are the indelible lessons? In the process of making the drug problem much smaller, we learned the importance of education — not principally teaching the young about the health dangers of specific drugs, but teaching young and old about the disease of addiction. We know that the disease begins with the use of addictive drugs and that those drugs change the brain — they create craving, impair judgment and lead to withdrawal or a feeling of illness in absence of the drug. Science has helped us see that we need to help those who are addicted particularly when they do not want our help — every family of an addict or alcoholic knows that denial is a terrible part of this disease.

When I became the drug policy director in 2001, we faced an inherent weakness in prevention programs for youth. Teens told us they had been taught the dangers of drugs, but if their boyfriend or girlfriend used they did not want to be judgmental or estranged, so they were likely to join in. We put treatment specialists together with some of best creative minds in advertising to fashion prevention messages directly presenting drug abuse as a sickness that places an obligation on friends to help stop it. We enlisted the idealism and caring of the young to reverse the force of peer pressure. The ads were an important contributor to our progress that needs to continue and grow. With this knowledge of addiction, how do we choose to make more victims?

We have learned to apply public health tools that have been proven effective against other diseases. We have learned that addiction is a treatable disease. We are increasing the pathways to treatment — through routine health care, the workplace, places of worship and schools. Drug courts leading to referral for treatment by the criminal justice system are now the major pathway through which the dependent are getting the help they need. Do we want to end all this by taking the courts out of the equation? Supervised, court-sanctioned treatment works best. Legalization robs us of this tool.

We have also learned how to join law enforcement and national security resources to break down trafficking groups and narcoterrorists. One of the greatest international policy success stories of the last decade has been the transformation of Colombia from a state dominated by narcoterrorism, violence and corruption to a thriving liberal democracy.

Between 2001 and 2007, the U.S. government’s estimate of the maximum potential production of cocaine in Colombia dropped 24%. There is no certain method of translating that into drug profits, but even conservative estimates show that a 24% reduction equaled hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue. There is now evidence that the combined effect of reduced production and increased seizures dropped the available Colombian cocaine supply to the U.S. from 2001 to 2007.

Colombia is the genuine backdrop for understanding the threat in Mexico today. The criminal gangs in Mexico go back decades. Many are drawn from generations in the same extended families. They have become wealthier and better armed, but the border areas they seek to control are an old battleground. The corruption they use to protect themselves has deep roots. They have become more dangerous as they have lost profits from the cocaine and meth trade over the last two years. Those who think legalizing drugs will stop the violence by cutting off the money to these groups seem unaware that they not only smuggle drugs and people across the border for profit, but that they also kidnap, hijack, manage large auto-theft operations and have extensive protection rackets.

Moreover, some of us remember that Bobby Kennedy was leading organized-crime strike forces against extremely dangerous mafia families, decades after the end of Prohibition. Just as ending Prohibition did not destroy organized crime in the U.S., legalizing drugs will not break the terrorist criminal groups in Mexico. In fact, the real pattern of violence from the mafia families in the U.S. to the cartels in Colombia suggests it is when they are threatened and destabilized that violence skyrockets. It is the violence focused on the threat of violent takeover by rival criminal groups that is an unfortunate but perhaps necessary first step in restoring the rule of law.

Legalizing drugs is the worst thing we could do for President Felipe Calderón and our Mexican allies. It would weaken the moral authority of his fight and the Mexicans would immediately realize that we have no intention of reducing consumption. Who do we think would take the profits from a legal drug trade? U.S. suppliers would certainly spring up, but that wouldn’t preclude Mexican supplies as well — or Mexican production for consumption in other countries. The Mexicans know that they too have a dangerous use and addiction problem. They have already learned that it is wrong and dangerous to make abuse and addiction worse.

We can make progress faster when more of us learn that drug use and addiction can not be an expression of individual liberty in a free society. Drug abuse is, by nature and the laws of organic chemistry that govern this disease, incompatible with freedom and civil society. Drug abuse makes human life solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short (a special version of Hobbes’s hell in our own families). In the deepest sense, this is why failure is not an option.

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