The Myths of Drug Legalization: From March 16, 1996

When high priests of America’s political right and left as articulate as William F. Buckley Jr., founding editor of National Review, and Anthony Lewis, a columnist for The New York Times Op-Ed page, peddle the same drug legalization line, it’s time to shout caveat emptor--let the buyer beware. For the boomlet to legalize drugs like heroin, cocaine and marijuana that they--and magazines like National Review and New York--are trying to seed among the right and left ends of the political spectrum, is founded in fiction, not fact. And it’s our children who could suffer long-lasting, permanent damage.

Fiction: There’s been no progress in the war on drugs.
FACT: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Household Drug Survey, the nation’s most extensive assessment of drug use, reports that from 1979 to 1994 the number of current drug users (those using within the past month) has dropped from 24.8 million to 13 million, marijuana users from 23 million to 10 million and cocaine users from 4.4 million to 1.4 million. The number of hard-core addicts has held steady at around 6 million, a situation most experts attribute to the unavailability of treatment and the large number of addicts in the pipeline.

Fiction: Whether to use drugs and become hooked is an adult decision.
FACT: It’s children who choose. Hardly anyone in America begins drug use after age 21. An individual who does not smoke, use drugs or abuse alcohol by age 21 is virtually certain never to do so. The nicotine pushers understand this, which is why they fight so strenuously to kill efforts to keep their stuff away from kids.

Fiction: Legalization would be only for adults; legalized drugs would not be available to children.
FACT: Nothing in the American experience gives grounds to believe in our ability to keep legal drugs out of the hands of children. It’s illegal for children to purchase cigarettes and alcohol. But today, 3 million adolescents smoke an average of half a pack a day: a $1 billion a year market. Twelve million underage Americans drink: a $10 billion a year market.

Fiction: Legalization would reduce crime and social problems.
FACT: Any short-term reduction in arrests from repealing drug laws would quickly evaporate as use increased; and the criminal conduct-assaults, murders, rapes, child molestations, vandalism and other violence-spawned by drugs like cocaine and methamphetamines would explode. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that criminals commit six times as many homicides, four times as many assaults and almost one and a half times as many robberies under the influence of drugs as they commit in order to get money to buy drugs.


Here the history of our experience with alcohol can teach us. More state prisoners were drunk on alcohol than high on drugs when they committed their crimes, and America’s number one criminal offense is driving while intoxicated (1.5 million arrests in 1993). Health and welfare costs would skyrocket if drugs were legalized.

Fiction: The American experience with the prohibition of alcohol supports drug legalization.
FACT: This ignores two important distinctions: Prohibition was in fact decriminalization (possession of alcohol for personal consumption was not illegal); and alcohol, unlike illegal drugs such as heroin and cocaine, has a long history of broad social acceptance dating back to the Old Testament and Ancient Greece. Nevertheless, alcohol consumption dropped from 1.96 gallons per person in 1919 to 0.97 gallons per person in 1934, the first full year after Prohibition ended. Death rates from cirrhosis among men came down from 29.5 per 100,000 in 1911 to 10.7 per 100,000 in 1929. During Prohibition, admission to mental health institutions for alcohol psychosis dropped 60 percent; arrests for drunk and disorderly conduct went down 50 percent; welfare agencies reported significant declines in cases due to alcohol-related family problems, and the death rate from impure alcohol did not rise.

Nor did Prohibition generate a crime wave. Homicide increased at a higher rate between 1900 and 1910 than during Prohibition, and organized crime was well established in the cities before 1920. I put these facts on the record not to support a return to Prohibition, which I strongly oppose, but to set the historical record straight and temper the revisionist view of legalizers who take their history from celluloid images of 1930’s gangster movies.

Fiction: Greater availability and legal acceptability of drugs like marijuana, cocaine and heroin would not increase use.

FACT: This contradicts not only experience but human nature. In the 1970’s we decriminalized marijuana. The Schafer Commission appointed by President Richard M. Nixon recommended decriminalization, as did President Jimmy Carter. The result? A soaring increase in marijuana use, particularly among youngsters.

Today we have 50 million nicotine addicts, 18 million alcoholics and alcohol abusers and 6 million illegal drug addicts. Experts like Dr. Herbert Kleber at Columbia University believe that with legalization the number of cocaine addicts alone would jump beyond the number of alcoholics.

That spells big trouble. In 1995 illegal drugs killed 20,000 Americans. Tobacco was responsible for 450,000 deaths; alcohol for more than 100,000. Studies at the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University reveal that, of the $66 billion that substance abuse costs Federal health and disability entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid, $56 billion is attributable to tobacco and alcohol.

Fiction: Drug use is an issue of civil liberties.
FACT: This is a convenient misreading of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Legalizers cite Mill to argue that the state has no right to interfere in the private life of a citizen who uses drugs; only when an action harms someone else may the state take action to prevent it. They ignore the fact that Mill’s conception of freedom does not extend to the right of individuals to enslave themselves or to decide that they will give up their liberty. Mill wrote with blunt clarity: “The principle of freedom cannot require that he should be free not to be free. It is not freedom to be allowed to alienate his freedom.”

Drug addiction is a form of enslavement. It “alters pathologically the nature and character of abusers,” says Mitchell Rosenthal, M.D., the president of Phoenix House. Even Mill at his most expansive would admit that the state can take action not only to free an addict from chains of chemical dependency that take away the freedom to be all that God meant him or her to be, but also to prevent those bonds from becoming shackles in the first place. Indeed, a state devoted to individual freedom has an obligation to nourish a society and legal structure that protects individuals from the slavery of drug addiction.

Even Mill’s most libertarian contention--that the state can regulate only those actions that directly affect others--does not support individual drug abuse and addiction, because such conduct does directly affect others: from the abused spouse and baby involuntarily addicted through the mother’s umbilical cord, to co-workers and innocent bystanders injured or killed by adolescents high on crack cocaine. In a society as interdependent as ours, the drug abuser’s conduct has a direct and substantial impact on every taxpayer who foots the bill for the criminal and health cost consequences of the drug abuser’s actions.

Certainly a society that recognizes the state’s compelling interest in banning (and stopping individuals from using) lead paint, asbestos insulation, unsafe toys and flammable fabrics can hardly ignore its interest in banning cocaine, heroin, marijuana, methamphetamines and hallucinogens. Indeed, refusing to include drug use in the right of privacy, the Supreme Court has blessed state laws that prohibit even the sacramental use of peyote. With the exception of Alaska, state courts, like those of New York, have held that possession of marijuana in the home is not protected by the right of privacy.

Fiction: Legalization works well in European countries.
FACT: The ventures of Switzerland, England and the Netherlands into drug legalization have had disastrous consequences. Switzerland’s “Needle Park,” touted as a way to restrict a few hundred heroin addicts to a small area, turned into a grotesque tourist attraction of 20,000 heroin addicts and junkies, which had to be closed down before it infected the city of Zurich. England’s foray into allowing any doctor to prescribe heroin was quickly curbed as heroin use increased.

The Netherlands legalized marijuana for anyone over age 15. Adolescent pot use there rose nearly 200 percent while it was dropping 66 percent in the United States. As crime and the availability of drugs like heroin and cocaine rose, and complaints from city residents about the decline in their quality of life multiplied, the Amsterdam city council moved to raise the age for legal purchase of marijuana from 16 to 18 and trim back the number of pot distribution shops in Amsterdam. Dutch persistence in selling pot has angered European neighbors because the Netherlands’ wide-open attitude toward marijuana is believed to be spreading pot and other drugs beyond its borders. And Sweden, after a brief turn at permitting doctors to give drugs to addicts, in 1980 adopted the American policy of seeking a drug-free society. By 1988, Sweden had seen drug use among young Army conscripts drop 75 percent and current use by ninth graders fall 66 percent.

What is most disturbing about the arguments for legalization is that they glide over the impact such a policy would have on our children. The United States in 1996 is assuredly not the Garden of Eden of the Old Testament. Dealing with evil, including drugs, is part of the human experience. But there is a special obligation to protect our children from evil, and drugs are first and foremost an issue about our children. It is adolescent experimentation that leads to abuse and addiction.

Today, most kids don’t use illicit drugs. But all children, particularly the poorest, are vulnerable to abuse and addiction. Russian roulette is not a game anyone should play. Legalizing drugs is not only playing Russian roulette with our children. It’s slipping a couple of extra bullets in the chamber.

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11 years 5 months ago
I have a friend who is in prison by the name of Jimbo. We have been friends for many years. We have been friends when he has been in prison and when he has not been in prison. My friend is in prison mainly because of parole violations. My friend has never been violent and really his only crimes have been petty drug possession. My friend has a very warm heart and is very accepting of people along with their failings. Jimbo is almost 50 years old. He is crystal meth junkie. His addiction got started when somebody injected him with meth at about age 16. My friend was an adopted and abused child. He eventually ran away from home at very early age. These days he often phones me collect because he wants to talk. I try to give him hope in and out of prison. I agree that we are playing Russian roulette with the poorest of our children and putting in extra bullets if we legalize drugs.
joe driscoll
11 years 5 months ago
I'd suggest that you do some better research. Your statement that an individual who does not smoke, use drugs or abuse alcohol by age 21 is virtually certain never to do so is blatantly wrong. While those people who begin to abuse drugs or alcohol at an early age are certainly at a much higher risk of becoming addicted, there is no assurance that those who start after the age of 21 will not become addicts. Fr. Joseph Martin and other experts in the field of addiction would back me up here. Or just go to any AA or NA meeting and hear the stories of those in attendance. I'm on my way to my AA meeting now. /s/ Joseph E. Driscoll


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