Friday, February 20, 2009

Would Legalizing Drugs Increase Drug Use?

One of the main arguments used by supporters of drug prohibition is that legalizing drugs would increase drug use. Is that really a logical conclusion? Is there any evidence to support it?

To those who make that argument I ask - if drug use were legal, would you start doing drugs? I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that the answer is no. In which case, these people believe that, while they have the mental faculties to see that drug use has other negative consequences besides the threat of prison, a large portion of the rest of us do not. It's a little insulting. Do we really think that someone who hits the gym every morning and drinks wheat grass is going to turn around and start shooting up heroin because it is legal?

Of course the flip side of that argument is that the illegality of drugs prevents people from using them. Let's take marijuana. About 40% of all adults have smoked marijuana at least once in their lives. If marijuana's illegality is keeping people from smoking it, how many people are we talking about? Do prohibition supporters think another 30% of the population would smoke pot if it were legal? If 70% of the population wants to do something, something that causes no direct physical harm to others, why is a minority being allowed to dictate what we put in our bodies?

Occasionally, supporters of drug prohibition will provide examples that they say prove that legality would increase drug use. According to the Department of Justice, "Legalization has been tried before—and failed miserably. Alaska’s experiment with Legalization in the 1970s led to the state’s teens using marijuana at more than twice the rate of other youths nationally. This led Alaska’s residents to vote to re-criminalize marijuana in 1990."

The DOJ, however, does not back up the assertion on their website with evidence. On the other hand, in a report by the Cato Institute titled Thinking About Drug Legalization, James Ostrowski sites statistics for Alaska that show just the opposite. In fact, Alaska may have had less teen drug use that other states. And while the DOJ asserts that The Netherlands drug policy has tripled heroin addiction levels, studies show that The Netherlands has a lower rate of drug use than the United States.

I recently attended a drug policy conference. One of the speakers, Vanda Felbab-Brown, asserted that legalization would increase drug use. The example she presented was the high rates of addiction in China when opiates were legal there.

One estimate of Chinese opium smoking in 1890 (in Jonathan D. Spence's book Chinese Roundabout) puts the rate of use at about 10% of the population, with 3 to 5% excessively smoking. According to the National Institute on Drug Policy, heroin use in the United States is only about 1.5%. But are we really comparing like things here?

In China, opium use was not just culturally acceptable, but in some cases promoted by local and colonial governments. In contrast, heroin may be one of the least socially acceptable drugs in the United States today. Growing up I knew many people who would happily snort cocaine, but would not do heroin as that was reserved for "junkies." If we compare opium use in China to a more socially acceptable drug like marijuana, then 10% is exactly the same figure for adults who have used marijuana in the last month.

Drug prohibition in the United States is nearly 100 years old. The drug war has been actively fought since the Nixon presidency. It isn't working. The main argument for continuing drug prohibition just doesn't hold water.

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1 comment:

Daemon said...

Agreed, all around.

Have you taken a look at the new legislation introduced by Tom Ammiano in the California legislature? It looks pretty promising - could end up being the first real chance we have for marijuana being legalized and taxed.

I'm interested in hearing your opinion/analysis on this legislation...