SOCIETY: by Robert L. MaginnisNews Weekly
Eight myths about legalising hard drugs
, February 18, 2012
Robert L. Maginnis, a policy analyst with the Family Research Council, based in Washington DC, sets out to refute eight frequently-heard arguments in favour of legalising illicit drugs. An edited version of his paper is reproduced below.
Despite data which strongly supports the continuation of effective drug abuse prevention, treatment and enforcement programs, some prominent Americans support legalising illicit drugs. Most Americans want to know the truth about drugs and expect public policy to be based on facts and not myths. Yet myths about legalisation abound.
Myth #1: Illicit drugs are no worse than alcohol and tobacco
Yale law professor Steven B. Duke, who wrote America’s Longest War: Rethinking Our Tragic Crusade Against Drugs, believes, “Our biggest, worst drug problem is the tobacco problem. Legalising drugs will reduce the use of alcohol, which is far more damaging than any popular illegal drug.”
The fact that some dangerous substances are legal does not mean that all dangerous substances should also be legal — especially when there are significant differences between the substances in question.
Clearly, alcohol and tobacco can be quite harmful.
Nevertheless, a given dose of cocaine or crack is far more dangerous than a drink of alcohol. Alcohol has an addiction rate of 10 per cent, whereas cocaine has an addiction rate as high as 75 per cent.
And when cocaine is combined with marijuana, it can be deadly. According to a study in Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior, an increase in heart rate due to cocaine was markedly enhanced if preceded by smoking marijuana. The dual use creates greater risk of overdose and more severe cardiovascular effects from the cocaine.
An article in Schizophrenia Research found that up to 60 per cent of schizophrenic patients used non-prescription psychoactive drugs.
By itself, marijuana is a dangerous drug as well. A joint of marijuana is far more carcinogenic than a cigarette. Microbiologist Tom Klein of the University of South Florida reports, “We’ve tried working with [marijuana smoke], and it’s so toxic, you just get it near the immune system and it [the immune system] dies.”
Klein found that THC [thrombocytopenia — the active ingredient in marijuana] suppresses some immune system responses and enhances others.
Mothers who smoke marijuana also contribute to low birth weight and developmental problems for their children and increase the risk of abnormalities similar to those caused by foetal alcohol syndrome by as much as 500 per cent.
Since the 1970s there have been more than 10,500 scientific studies which demonstrate the adverse consequences of marijuana use. Many of these studies draw upon data collected when most of the marijuana available in the US was far less potent than that available today.
Myth #2: Legalisation will drive the crime rate down
Joycelyn Elders, when she was US Surgeon General in the Clinton Administration, told a National Press Club luncheon, “Sixty per cent of violent crimes are drug- or alcohol-related.... Many times they’re robbing, stealing and all of these things to get money to buy drugs.... I do feel that we would markedly reduce our crime rate if drugs were legalised.”
The former president of the American Bar Association, George Bushnell, also favours legalising marijuana and cocaine. He believes legalisation will cut crime.
But these assertions are not supported by the facts. The United States experimented with legalisation and it failed. From 1919 to 1922, government-sponsored clinics handed out free drugs to addicts in hopes of controlling their behaviour. The effort failed, and the policy was reversed.
California decriminalised marijuana in 1976, and, within the first six months, arrests for driving under the influence of drugs rose 46 per cent for adults and 71.4 per cent for juveniles. Decriminalising marijuana in Alaska and Oregon in the 1970s resulted in the doubling of use.
Patrick Murphy, a court-appointed lawyer for 31,000 abused and neglected children in Chicago, says that more than 80 per cent of the cases of physical and sexual abuse of children now involve drugs. There is no evidence that legalising drugs will reduce these crimes, and there is evidence that suggests it would worsen the problem.
The extent to which individuals commit “drug-related crimes only” is overstated. Most incarcerated “drug” offenders violated other laws as well. Princeton University professor John Dilulio found that only 2 per cent, i.e., 700, of those in federal prisons were convicted of pure drug possession. They generally committed other and violent crimes to earn a sentence.
However, 70 per cent of current inmates were on illegal drugs when arrested and, if drugs become cheaper, violent crime could reasonably be expected to increase.
Myth #3: Legalisation makes economic sense
Ethan Nadelmann, a former Princeton University professor and director of the Lindesmith Center, states: “Make sure that junkies have access to clean needles; make it easy for addicts to obtain methadone; give heroin-maintenance programs a chance to work; decriminalise marijuana; stop spending billions on incarcerating drug users and drug dealers. We know we can reduce drug abuse more effectively by spending that money on education, pre and post natal care and job-training programs.”
Dr Robert Dupont, founding director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and president of the Institute for Behavior and Health in Rockville, Maryland, refutes the economic myth. “We now have two legal drugs, alcohol and tobacco. We have 113 million current users of alcohol and 60 million tobacco users.
“The reason marijuana and cocaine use is so much lower is because they are illegal drugs. Cocaine and marijuana are more attractive than alcohol and tobacco. If we remove the prohibition of illegality we would have a number of users of marijuana and cocaine similar to that of tobacco and alcohol.”
Health costs associated with legalisation would be very high. And legalisation would have consequences elsewhere. For example, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) said legalisation of drugs would cost society between US$140-210 billion a year in lost productivity and job-related accidents. And insurance companies would pass on accident expenses to consumers.
Myth #4: Criminalisation of drugs is like alcohol prohibition
The late conservative columnist William F. Buckley, Jr., wrote that the “New York Bar in 1986 advocated the repeal of all federal legislation dealing with drugs, leaving it to the states to write their own policies. This will remind you of the 21st Amendment: when prohibition was repealed in 1933, each state was left free to write its own liquor laws.”
Prohibition was a solitary effort by this country while the rest of the world was essentially “wet.” However, most drugs are illegal throughout much of the world. This makes enforcement easier. History shows that prohibition curbed alcohol abuse. Alcohol use declined by 30 to 50 per cent; deaths from cirrhosis of the liver fell from 29.5 per 100,000 in 1911 to 10.7 in 1929; and admissions to state mental hospitals for alcohol psychosis fell from 10.1 per 100,000 in 1919 to 4.7 in 1928.
The DEA found that during prohibition, suicide rates decreased 50 per cent. The incidence of alcohol-related arrests also declined 50 per cent. Mark Moore, Harvard professor of criminal justice, wrote: “The real lesson of prohibition is that society can, indeed, make a dent in the consumption of drugs through laws.”
Myth #5: Other nations have successfully legalised drugs
Dr John Marks of Liverpool, England, promotes Great Britain’s “enlightened” drug programs. “The results are zero drug-related deaths, zero HIV infection among injecting drug takers, a ... reduction of ... 96 per cent in acquisitive crime. And perhaps most puzzling of all, a fall in the incidence of addiction, among the public at large of ... 92 per cent.”
History provides evidence that legalisation of drugs in foreign nations has not been successful. For example, opium was legalised in China, resulting in 90 million addicts, and it took a half-century to repair the damage.
Egypt allowed unrestricted trade of cocaine and heroin in the 1920s. An epidemic of addiction resulted. Even in Iran and Thailand, countries where drugs are readily available, the prevalence of addiction continues to soar.
Modern-day Netherlands is often cited as a country which has successfully legalised drugs. Marijuana is sold over the counter and police seldom arrest cocaine and heroin users. But official tolerance has led to significant increases in addiction. Amsterdam’s officials blame the significant rise in crime on the liberal drug policy. The city’s 7,000 addicts are blamed for 80 per cent of all property crime, and Amsterdam’s rate of burglary is now twice that of Newark, New Jersey. Drug problems have forced the city to increase the size of the police force, and the city fathers are now rethinking the drug policy.
Dr K.F. Gunning, president of the Dutch National Committee on Drug Prevention, cites some revealing statistics about drug abuse and crime. Cannabis use among students increased 250 per cent from 1984 to 1992. During the same period, shootings rose 40 per cent, car thefts increased 62 per cent, and hold-ups rose 69 per cent.
The Swiss opened a “legalised drug” area in Zurich seven years ago and local addicts were given drugs, clean needles and emergency medical care.
Unfortunately, the liberal policy backfired and the number of addicts surged to 3,500; violence surged, too. “Needle Park,” as it came to be known, was a place of open warfare among rival gangs, and even police faced gunfire. Their cars were attacked and overturned. In February 1995, officials ended the experiment, conceding that it had evolved into a grotesque spectacle.
Myth #6: Legalisation would lead to health benefits
Arnold S. Trebach, former president of the Drug Policy Foundation, calls for the medical use of certain illegal drugs. He claims there is “no scientific or ethical reason why government denies heroin and marijuana to people suffering from cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis and other diseases”.
In January 1994, the Clinton Administration decided to review the federal ban against the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Philip Lee, Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services, announced in July 1994, “The scientific evidence doesn’t support using marijuana to treat glaucoma or nausea caused by AIDS or cancer treatment.”
The DEA reported that marijuana is not accepted as medicine by a single American health association.
Dr David Ettinger, professor of oncology at the Johns Hopkins University school of medicine, states, “There is no indication that marijuana is effective in treating nausea and vomiting resulting from radiation treatment or other causes.”
Myth #7: Legalisation will reduce addiction rates
Previous efforts to legalise drugs such as marijuana saw an increase in abuse. The National Families in Action found that during the decade when 11 states decriminalised marijuana, regular use tripled among adolescents, doubled among young adults, and quadrupled among older adults. Today, there are more than 8,000 emergency room visits for marijuana abuse each year, and 77,000 persons each year are admitted to treatment programs for marijuana abuse.
Cocaine is more addictive than marijuana. President William Howard Taft identified cocaine as “more appalling in its effects than any other habit-forming drug in the United States”. He wanted it banned back in 1910. And the ranks of cocaine addicts grew before the substance was outlawed in 1915.
During the late 1960s, Dr Marie Nyswander experimented with opiate addicts at the Rockefeller University, giving them free morphine, and saw the addicts’ daily tolerance for morphine rise swiftly. Her partner, Dr Vincent Dole, commented, “The doses on which you could keep them comfortable kept going up and up; the addicts were never really satisfied or happy. It was not an encouraging experience.”
Myth #8: Legalisation is a civil liberties issue
Chicago commodities trader Richard Dennis contributed more than $1 million to the pro-legalisation Drug Policy Foundation. He opposes criminal penalties for drug use and states, “It’s a self-evident proposition that people shouldn’t go to jail for things they do to themselves.”
To legalise behaviour is in large measure to condone it. Illicit drug use is not a victimless crime because the user, his family and society suffer social and economic costs. For example, drug use by pregnant mothers causes in utero damage to the child. It increases the risk of mortality threefold and the risk of low birth weight fourfold. Drug abuse is a key factor in most child abuse cases. In Philadelphia, cocaine is implicated in half of the cases in which parents beat their children to death, and in 80 per cent of all abuse cases.
In the nation’s capital, 90 per cent of reported child abusers are also illicit drug abusers. In nearby Maryland, one-third of all car accidents involve drivers who test positive for marijuana.
Robert Maginnis is a policy analyst with the Family Research Council, a Washington DC-based research and advocacy organisation. A full-length version of this article, complete with footnotes and references, may be accessed from: