:Providence Journal; :Jan 28, 2011; :Projo Nation; :B7

Some big illusions of movement to legalize drugs


    The Journal’s Dec. 28 editorial “Drug war: Make it medical” argued that the campaign to enforce anti-drug laws is futile and should be abandoned. With striking similarity, Froma Harrop makes much the same argument in her Jan. 3 column, “New soldiers in fight against the drug war.” The crucial flaw in both pieces is the failure to distinguish what is illegal from what is immoral. Decriminalizing an action does not amount to eradicating an evil.

    Neither of the pieces explains with any fleshed-out argument just how regulated drug sales would work. Nor do they explain how the legal and regulated sale of narcotics would be at all parallel to the legitimate medical uses of prescribed drugs for analgesic purposes after surgery or for the relief of carefully diagnosed troubled minds.

    Would all classes of drugs be legalized and regulated? Who would have privileged access to the regulated drugs? Presumably teenagers would not have legal access to such addictive substances for “recreational” purposes. But does that mean that they would not seek them out? And where would they seek them?

    Harrop’s column argues that “if drugs were legalized, . . . drug gangs would go out of business.” Does she really think that there would be no black market for illegal drugs and that much of that enterprise would not be aimed at teenagers? Doesn’t she suspect that the addicts whose appetites are not satisfied by the limited supply of “regulated” heroin or cocaine or marijuana would seek additional drugs outside the legal market? Who would supply those drugs?

    I think we all know who would supply them — the same thugs who supply the current market.

    Legalizing drugs would hardly end the “drug-fueled bloodbath” that she refers to. It would perpetuate the problem, tempting more people into the legal market, and then hooking them on addictions that would only be fed by corruption in the regulation system or by a black market. Indeed, there is grisly violence associated with the drug trade, but is that to be resolved by generating an even wider problem?

    And what would be the effect of the legalized drugs on social behavior? Would it be legal to drive a car after using a legal drug? Would it be legal to behave like a glassy-eyed rowdy at a sports event? Or for someone who habitually uses legal drugs to possess a gun? Drugs alter people’s perceptions, delay their reaction times, and alter their dispositions.

    Regulating alcohol sales has not succeeded in ending the social menace of alcohol-induced stupor. So why should we be at all confident that regulation of legally sold drugs, which are ipso facto mind-altering, would not be equally menacing to society? Yes, drunks are currently more apt to be involved in fatal accidents (21 percent of fatal accidents, says a French study, as opposed to 7 percent of fatal accidents caused by marijuana). But just imagine our highways as the scene of an infinitely worse dance of death once the invitation to buy trance-inducing drugs legally is extended by decriminalization.

    The editorial argues that the war on drugs is too expensive and that we could put the money to better uses, such as education. But pray tell me what value there would be for additional educational opportunities once the minds to be educated have been legally transported elsewhere. The money saved would have to be spent on rescue programs.

    One wonders whether the real goal of the editorial and the column is to overshoot the mark deliberately, so that a compromise position could be broad toleration for marijuana while heavier substances would remain illegal. Would legal toleration of marijuana improve our society?

    As a “gateway drug” marijuana leads many teenagers toward cocaine. A Columbia University study found that teenagers who smoke marijuana are 85 times more likely to move on to cocaine use than their peers who do not smoke marijuana. Those who think of marijuana as relatively harmless need to consider a Dec. 17 Journal report, “Reale gets 8 years in death of Colin Foote,” about a much-publicized trial involving a fatal accident. Before sentencing the driver to a prison term, Judge Edwin Gale concluded: “I find that marijuana killed Colin Foote [the victim]. . . The defendant [Laura Reale] was high on marijuana at the time of that fatal crash.”

    If she had been using a legally available drug, would the result have been any different? Or, would the removal of drug-interdiction programs be more likely to produce more such accidents, more such wasted lives, more such grieving families?

    Perhaps the term “war” is a weak analogy for the campaign to interdict illegal drugs. “War” usually presumes a limited period of campaigning, with a lasting settlement in sight. That is never going to be the case with humanity’s inherent flaw — the temptation to choose the wrong things. We won’t end sin by decriminalizing immoral practices, and nor will we change human nature by telling people that what was once wrong is now, by modern, enlightened standards, quite all right.

Richard J. Grace is a professor of history at Providence College.