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Taboo No More - Drug legalisation
"Taboo No More?"
by Ira Glasser, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union
from the Fall/Winter 1989 issue of "Civil Liberties" newsletter
reproduced without permission
At long last, judging from recent comments by public figures and
editorials in the mass media, Americans seem willing to at least begin
thinking about what was previously unthinkable: ending criminal
prohibitions against the use of drugs.
Our nation's compulsive pursuit of the unattainable goal of a drug-free
society has been wedded to a policy of prohibition, aimed at eliminating
the use of certain drugs. Sadly, we would be much better off today if we
had pursued policies aimed at controlling, rather than eliminating, drug
use and reducing its harmful consequences.
Today, consequences of "the drug problem" include the spread of AIDS,
high homicide rates, property crimes, the proliferation of criminal
cartels, corruption of public officials, paralysis of our criminal
justice system, and the steady erosion of our civil liberties.
Ironically, almost all of these ills are enhanced by prohibition. For
example, our commitment to prohibition has prevented us from
establishing programs to combat the spread of AIDS by putting clean
needles in the hands of intravenous drug users. Foreign observers who
have described this obstinacy as genocidal are not far wrong. The steady
erosion of civil liberties is another ominous offshoot of prohibition.
Opinion polls show that large numbers of Americans, in the grip of
anti-drug hysteria generated by the gobernment, are ready to permit
warrantless searches of their apartments, inform on family members, ban
films that depict drug use, and allow the military to police their
We've been led to believe that such measures are required to keep drugs,
especially crack (a smokable form of cocaine) from destroying our
society. But in fact, the vaunted "war on drugs" targets marijuana users
primarily. Federal statistics show that in the last few years, about
750,000 arrests have been made annually for drug law violations. About
three-quarters of these arrests are not for producing or selling drugs,
but for possession of an illicit substance, usually marijuana.
After declaring a stepped-up "war on drugs" a few months ago, for
example, the federal government last October launched simultaneous raids
in 46 states on GARDEN SUPPLY STORES, seeking customer lists so they
could apprehend people who might be growing marijuana indoors! In the
1950's, it was dangerous to join a political organization for fear the
FBI would get your name and harass you. Today, tomato growers are in
The traditional accompaniment to such official zeal has been the media
blitz, starring the image of a devil drug. The culprit substance is
always said to be so dangerous that even a single dose of it will entrap
a normal person into lifelong addiction and turn law-abiding citizens
into violent monsters. At different times in our history, we have been
bombarded by frightful images of "demon rum," "reefer madness," and the
"heroin dope fiend." All of these exaggerations turned out to be
scientifically false, but they were useful propaganda for manipulating a
fearful public into accepting prohibition. Today, it is happening again.
The violence attending the use of cocaine is caused, we're told, by the
chemical effects of the drug itself. But a recent study of drug-related
homicides in New York showed that 87 percent of those involving cocaine
were caused, not by people under the influence, but by territorial
disputes, deals or debt collections gone awry, and other vagaries of the
criminalized drug trafficking system. Only 7.5 percent of the homicides
were related to the behavioral effects of a drug, and two-thirds of
those involved alcohol, not cocaine.
We tolerate endless violence induced by alcohol - 54 percent of violent
crime offenders in the U.S. are under the influence of alcohol at the
time they committed the crimes - without being told that alcohol
prohibition must be restored. Relatively few people use crack - only
one-half of one percent of the population during the past year,
according to federal statistics. Yet we're constantly told that
crack-induced violence can be stamped out by a policy that appears to
create more violence than it stamps out.
We are also told by some that cocaine use would increase significantly
if prohibition were ended, a claim for which there is no scientific
evidence. In the inner city, prohibition notwithstanding, crack is
accessible and cheap. So anyone likely to use it is already using it,
undeterred by the law. While decriminilization is not likely to affect
crack use much, it might well alleviate the deadly fallout - including
the sky-high rates of homicide and imprisonment.
The fear that ending prohibition would substantially increase the spread
of drug addiction is also contradicted by the example of the
Netherlands, where marijuana use actually went down after legalization,
and where the percentage of the population using marijuana is no higher
than in the United States. Nothing is certain, of course, and more
research is needed. But studies of cocaine users in the Netherlands, as
well as in Australia, indicate that the barrier created by prohibition
is relatively small and the market relatively inelastic.
Studies here and in other countries also mock the
instant-drug-enslavement propaganda, revealing that controlled use of
cocaine is possible and that no more than 20 percent of users carried
their habits to the point where adverse effects occurred - and most of
those users cut their indulgence back to lower levels.
Norman Zinberg's research in this country established that addiction or
compulsive use of any drug, including alcohol, is a function of three
variables: the chemical effect of the drug, the state of mind of the
user, and the conditions under which the drug is used. Heroin used as a
painkiller in the hospital, for example, will often not have the same
addictive effect as heroin used by a street hustler in a criminalized
This is important for projecting the likely effect, on the general
population, of ending prohibition. Generalizing about the effects of
cocaine and crack by looking only at pathological users is like trying
to infer the effects of alcohol on guests at a cocktail party from the
behavior of skid row alcoholics. Again, more research is needed, but
that need is being obscured by a din of nonsense about devil drugs and
their capacity to enslave us.
The impossible dream of a drug-free nation must be challenged.
Abstinence makes as little sense in the drug context as it does in the
fight against AIDS. It's time to cool out the hysteria and talk
rationally about controlling the use of drugs through practical policies
that become us, rather than disgrace us, as a nation.
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