Editorial: Costs and Consequences 2/22/02

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David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected] , 2/22/02

The extraordinary misrepresentation of the costs of drug abuse promulgated by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (as noted in the next article) shows how easy it is to turn a complex social issue into a warped, simple-minded piece of propaganda. Clearly, the fiscal costs associated with drug abuse must be distinguished from the costs of drug prohibition, if there is to be a rational discussion of US drug policy on any level.

Part of such a discussion would include more than financial costs. It is well understood by thoughtful observers of drug policy that some of the harms associated in the public mind with drugs really result from drug laws rather than the drugs themselves. In fact, most harms of drugs result from some interaction of drug use and drug laws combined.

For example, addiction to a substance like heroin or cocaine can in itself be considered a harm of those drugs. Prohibiting such drugs, though, places the addict into a netherworld of criminality, forced to purchase his or her supply from an unreliable, maybe dangerous source, with no quality control and at steep street drug prices. The time, expense, uncertainty and just plain scariness of such a situation takes an enormous toll on the quality of life of the addict. It is prohibition, then, which drives addicts to the extremes of degradation that characterize addiction in the modern world.

More thoughtful observers of drug policy than those at ONDCP sometimes make the mistake of concluding that prohibition helps to address a public health problem while creating for society a criminal problem in exchange. This is an honest attempt to understand a complicated problem, but it doesn't quite hit the mark head on either. All but the most ideological drug policy analysts acknowledge that prohibition increases the average harm suffered by the individual drug user, at least for as long as he or she continues to be a user. The dire straits of the addict under prohibition as already explained are just one example. Threat of disease (such as drug-related HIV or Hepatitis) and risk of imprisonment are two others.

But while it seems likely that more experimentation with certain drugs may occur under a legalization scenario, it is far less clear that there would be more intoxication overall, much less a greater amount of addiction. Public health and safety, then, are both casualties of prohibition, not opposing goals to be balanced against each other. Ending prohibition is in the interests of society on either count.

These are just a few of the many complex interactions between the human nature of drug use and the blunt warping of the drug scene created by prohibition. But to acknowledge that complexity and engage the subtle distinctions of cause and effect that are part and parcel of it, is to admit more than the drug warriors can ever afford. After all, if prohibition has harms too, then it's no longer as simple as "drugs are bad." And all their favorite soundbites would go out the window, not to mention the Superbowl ads, data-abusing papers and all the other media-manipulating propaganda tools that have served the dark cause of drug war politics so well.

Truly understanding drug policy requires honesty, subtlety, thoughtfulness and care -- qualities that are woefully absent from ONDCP's disgusting attacks on reality waged year after year.

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Issue #225, 2/22/02 Editorial: Costs and Consequences | Lies, Damn Lies, and "The Economic Costs of Drug Abuse in the United States, 1992-1998" | New Mexico Post-Mortem: Reformers Differ on What Went Right, What Went Wrong | Britain: Parliamentary Committee Will Recommend Cannabis Decrim, Ecstasy Down-Scheduling, More Heroin Prescriptions | Dutch to Consider Prescription Heroin for Hard Cases, Study Results Lay Groundwork for Move | New Study Provides First Comprehensive Report on Drug Laws in All 50 States and DC, Variations Abound | At the Statehouse: Medical Marijuana Moving in Maryland and Vermont | Libertarian Party Ad Campaign Takes on Drug Terror Link | Federal Drug Office Accused of "Enron-Style Accounting" in New National Drug Budget Reporting | News Links: Bolivia and Colombia, California Medical Marijuana, Drug-Terror Ad Parody | Alerts: HEA, Bolivia, DEA Hemp Ban, SuperBowl Ad, Ecstasy Legislation, Mandatory Minimums, Medical Marijuana, Virginia | The Reformer's Calendar

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