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April 20, 2007 - Drug War Chronicle (US)

Editorial: Ignorance Leading to Suffering, Injustice and Death

By Dave Borden, Drug War Chronicle

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

When discussing the idea of drug legalization with those who are unfamiliar with the issue, I am commonly asked, "Wouldn't more people use drugs if they were legal?" or "Wouldn't all the problems increase if drugs were legal?"

The reaction is a simplistic one. It's possible -- not a given -- that drug use will increase after prohibition is ended. But that's the bare beginning of the analysis, not the conclusion of it. Whatever happens to drug use rates, the many devastating harms rising from prohibition will end -- the violence and public disorder of the illegal drug trade, the poisonings and the overdoses from uncertain purity, the desperate straits of addicts who can't afford high street prices, just to name a few.

Richard Dennis, a famed financial trader who was an early major supporter of this movement, wrote that addiction rates could double with legalization but the total harm still decrease. I don't know what the math is or if there is any good math on the subject. But even if we knew what would happen with drug use rates or drug addiction rates -- which we don't -- to make that the only measure of the policy, much less the primary one, does not do justice to the complexity or the importance of drug policy.

My prediction is that experimental or casual use of certain drugs would increase, but would mostly involve lower potency forms of the drugs than are widely available now, and would be counter-balanced by decreased use of other currently legal drugs like alcohol (the "substitution" effect). But that's just a guess, albeit an educated one.

Brian Bennett, publisher of the "truth: the Anti-drugwar" web site, featuring extensive compilations and charting of drug war data, pointed out in an e-mail this morning that in 1979, the year when drug use is said to have peaked, there were 7,101 recorded deaths from all illegal drugs combined. In 2004, the latest year for which data is available (and for which Bennett just uploaded a presentation), the total was up to 30,711, more than four times as many. Clearly, there's a lot more to things than mere usage rates.

The stinging report of the UK Drug Policy Commission released this week provides some insight, even if tentative, to the question of whether huge numbers of people would become drug users who are not users now if drugs were legalized.

According to the report, which was coauthored by a prominent American academic, Peter Reuter, and a prominent British academic, Alex Stevens, "There is little evidence from the UK, or any other country, that drug policy influences either the number of drug users or the share of users who are dependent." Other factors -- cultural and social, the report cites -- appear to play a more important determining role than laws and policies.

Reuter and Stevens presumably had analyzed the differences only between different prohibitionist systems, since there are no extant legalization systems with which to compare the data. To switch to a legalization system is a more fundamental change than to switch between one prohibition system and another, even between a harsher one like ours and a more tolerant one such as the policies in the Netherlands or Switzerland.

Still, at a minimum such a finding calls into question the assumption that drug use would skyrocket following legalization -- it's just not obvious at all that that would happen.

Reuter and Stevens also point out that governments can make a difference in "reducing the levels of drug-related harms through the expansion of and innovation in treatment and harm reduction services." That is to say, drug-related deaths need not have more than quadrupled in the US during a quarter-century in which the drug-using percentage of the population has decreased, if only policymakers would be a little more thoughtful about what they are doing.

That last sentence is my interpretation; I don't want to put words in the authors' mouths. But I think it follows from their own words pretty straightforwardly.

It is understandable for a rank-and-file citizen who hasn't studied drug policy to not immediately show the same degree of sophistication in the issue as a scholar or advocate. After all, many of drug policy reform's basic tenets are counterintuitive -- it did not occur to me that drug legalization could reduce crime until I read about the idea, for example.

But for policymakers to continue to base policies that affect large numbers of people on the most simplistic reactions or slogans is downright irresponsible -- as Bennett's numbers prove. The consequence of ignorance or politicization in drug policy is suffering, injustice and death. Shame on our "leaders" who have willfully allowed it happen.

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