[FONT=Arial,Helvetica]Legalization is a terrible idea
By Daniel K. Duncan and Edward F. Tasch
H.L. Mencken once said: "For every problem there is one solution: simple, neat and wrong." In our opinion, this is exactly the case when it comes to the suggestion of legalizing drugs as a response to the failed war on drugs. In fact, we find it absurd, a simplistic answer to a complicated problem.
So, the war on drugs is not working. Agreed. But the question to ask is, "Why?" Is it not working because using drugs is really a fine idea, and we've been unjust and unreasonable in not letting everyone do whatever they want to do? Or is it not working because the way we've gone about waging this war set us up for failure?
Without a doubt, we think it's the latter.
Almost all the effort in the war in drugs has been aimed at punishing traffickers and users and reducing the supply. Yet even many of those directly involved in these efforts have said that this is the wrong way to go about the task -- and they've been saying it for years.
The premise underlying these approaches is the idea that supply drives demand: The more drugs there are, the more people use them. It is a fatally flawed assumption. The truth is just the opposite: Demand drives supply, and until we accept the significance of this fundamental failure of understanding, the strategies we come up with will continue to fail. In other words, the failure of the war on drugs is no justification for legalizing these harmful stubstances.
Another idea behind legalization is that because people continue to use drugs regardless of the laws prohibiting their use, we might as well just repeal the laws. Let's apply that idea to other prohibitions:
People still steal, so let's legalize stealing. People still speed, so let's remove all the speed limits. People still drink and drive, so let's legalize drinking and driving. Date-rape continues; let's legalize date-rape. The point? Shifting from one flawed premise to another solves nothing.
Incredibly, advocates of legalizing drugs often point to alcohol as an example of a successfully legalized drug. This is a terribly weak argument. Do they really not understand that -- in terms of lives disrupted, ruined and ended before their time -- the legal drug alcohol is by far a bigger problem than any other drug?
Some say that by legalizing drugs, the gangs that subsist on the revenue from trafficking will cease to be a problem. Nonsense. Kids don't join gangs to sell drugs; they join gangs to belong to something, to gain a sense of identity and to feel protected. If gangs weren't selling drugs, they'd still be stealing cars, jewelry, computers, cell phones and, for that matter, legal prescription drugs -- just as they are now.
How about the argument that legalizing drugs would eliminate the black market in drugs and, thus, reduce the number of crimes committed to support the habits of addicts. Really? So once drugs were legalized, all the addicts suddenly would get good-paying jobs to earn the money they need to buy their drugs legally? Ridiculous.
Whether drugs are legal or illegal, addicts still will be impaired, they'll still suffer from drug-affected behaviors, still be dysfunctional and still do anything they have to do to survive.
Is there a solution? We think there is, but it would require a completely different type of effort, one that takes advantage of lessons learned about what really works and what doesn't. It would involve three basic strategies:
— First, it is absolutely imperative to zero in on the problem of demand. That means really getting serious -- for the first time in our nation's history -- about prevention. We've learned a great deal in recent years about how to conduct successful programs to prevent young people from starting to use drugs. What has been missing is the will to do so and resources to make it possible.
— Second, making sure the prevention programs work requires follow-up public education and awareness campaigns of extremely high quality and sophistication.
— Lastly, the approach of law enforcement and the justice system needs to combine a degree of decriminalization -- not legalization -- with greater access to quality treatment programs and much more stringent enforcement of anti-trafficking laws.
Drug abuse is a major public health problem. It cannot be solved by capitulating to the demand for drugs that destroy lives via addiction. It can be solved by honestly acknowledging what we've learned about what works and what doesn't. The sooner the better.
Daniel K. Duncan is director of community services and Edward F. Tasch is executive director of the St. Louis area chapter of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse.