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Winning Drug War Requires Tough Love

By Marc Levin


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       A controversial Super Bowl ad linking drug abuse and terrorism has served as a reminder that approximately seven times as many Americans die each year from illegal drugs as were murdered on September 11. However, from Ralph Nader to William F. Buckley, many critics advocate drug legalization. Their argument is that people have the right to consume any substance so long as others are not directly harmed. Of course, there is no such right in the U.S. Constitution.
       Moreover, others are harmed. Statistics show that drug users commit a disproportionate number of crimes. While the type of person who uses drugs may also be predisposed to break other laws, mind-altering drugs by definition affect a person's sense of judgment.

       In addition to crime, another negative but overlooked side effect of drug consumption on others is that it stimulates a market for drugs. While it is true that a ready supply does not force other adults to take drugs and that selling drugs to children could still be outlawed even if drugs were legalized for adults, it is, as a practical matter, difficult, if not impossible, to enforce this distinction. This is demonstrated by the ubiquity of adults buying alcohol for minors.    

       However, the more general problem with drug legalization is that making illegal drugs easily available would substantially increase the number of adults using drugs. This is because humans are not completely rational, at least not all of the time. Though virtually any determined American can now obtain illegal drugs, a person who would not normally try drugs but is suddenly possessed with an urge to try them would have to expend considerable time and effort.

       For example, someone not normally inclined to try drugs might feel compelled to do so because they lost their job, were suddenly divorced or dumped, or suffered some other particularly traumatic or depressing event. What will be the effect of allowing such a person to walk into a convenience store and get high instead of having to wander through a ghetto looking for a drug pusher? When China legalized opium, they discovered the result is an inebriated populace.

       Yet, the libertarian rejoinder is that liberty is abridged if an individual's desire to get high is suppressed. This argument confuses liberty and license. The ultimate question, and the one that a person talking a friend out of suicide confronts and easily answers, is whether the friend will, at a more rational moment, thank him or her for intervening.

       Up until 1875, there were no drug laws and little drug abuse in America. In the age of the Scarlet Letter, families and communities were so tightly knit that this kind of intervention by friends and family could take the place of government action. Whatever the merits of this state of affairs, it is impractical in today's society that is highly mobile, impersonal, and marked by family breakdown.

       In light of these realities, a comprehensive solution emerges. First, drug dealers -- defined as persons with a commercial quantity of drugs -- should continue to be arrested and imprisoned. While many drug dealers will go uncaught, each prosecution marginally reduces the supply of drugs and raises the cost, discouraging use.

       Secondly, individuals found with only a small, personal supply of illegal drugs should be sentenced to mandatory drug rehabilitation. This would mirror the approach taken by a friend or family member with someone who is using drugs or pondering suicide.

       Indeed, people would be far more likely to turn drug abusers into the authorities if the result was mandatory rehabilitation rather than incarceration. If more individual users of illegal drugs were turned in, they could in turn reveal information about where they obtained their drugs, leading to more prosecutions of dealers.

       Unfortunately, insufficient funding has impeded drug rehabilitation initiatives in states such as California where, following the passage on November 7, 2000 of Proposition 36 replacing jail time with treatment, waits to enter "mandatory" treatment programs of a month or more are common. Imposing monetary penalties based on ability to pay on those enrolled in mandatory treatment would ameliorate this problem and provide a further disincentive for the use of illegal drugs.

       Perhaps the most serious shortcoming of Proposition 36 is that treatment is hardly mandatory because jail time is not an option when an individual does not participate. As a result, the Christian Science Monitor (September 26, 2001) reports that as many as one-quarter of drug users sent by court officers to treatment centers are not showing up.
       However, a more stringent treatment plan that includes fines and is backed up by the threat of jail time would reduce drug use. At the same time, it would write into law the time-honored American values of enlightened compassion and tough love that each of us would uphold when confronting an addicted friend or loved one.

Levin is President of the Houston-based American Freedom Center ( and can be reached at


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Marc Levin, 2002, All rights reserved.

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