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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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 (www.americanfreedomctr.org) and can be
reached at email@example.com.
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