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Prohibit Prohibition

by Michael Williams

Throughout the 20th century, the United States government has waged a war against a freedom of choice, disguised as protection of the collective good. Through this seemingly altruistic goal, the US government successfully created powers beyond that which the United States Constitution was originally founded upon. Society is harmed when a government prohibits a personal choice, as freedom is stripped away. The “War on Drugs” is centered around the ideology that illicit drugs present an inherent risk so great to the public, that prohibition, the banning of all of these plants and chemicals, is the only valid way to prevent massive negative societal and individual effects. Unfortunately, this does not protect the public from these unfavorable results, and in many cases, actually increases the dangers. Despite the fear that removal of prohibition will result in an increased danger to the public, foreign programs have shown this assumption to be false; the only valid solution to the “problem” is legalization of all drugs.

Prohibition is unconstitutional; alcohol prohibition required a constitutional amendment to be created, and no such act was written to allow the illegality of drugs. Instead, a loophole was utilized, and “with passage of the Marijuana Stamp Act in 1937 marijuana was prohibited.” (ACLU). By refusing to allow anyone to purchase these stamps, the government effectively eliminated the legal sale and use of marijuana. This program followed the original Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914, declaring opiates and cocaine illegal (ACLU) through the same tax laws, and has now evolved and been extended almost as a blanket rule to any new chemical that is created which alters one’s perception of self or reality, regardless of safety or medical merit. According to the constitution, the government does not have the power to regulate personal choice, but it created this alternative route to prohibition despite the massive legal hurdles.

Many believe that health issues are the primary reason for drugs being illegal, yet the general public does not realize that legal drugs are more toxic than those which are illegal. In the United States, tobacco alone kills over 430,000, alcohol 110,000 (Drug War Facts), and prescription drugs kill approximately 32,000 people (Corey) yearly, while all illegal drugs combined, including cocaine, heroin, amphetamines, marijuana, LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), psilocybin “magic” mushrooms, ecstasy, GHB (gamma hydroxybutyrate), mescaline and PCP (phencyclidine), killed approximately 11,000 people in 1999 (DAWN). Interestingly, of those 11,000 people, only 55% can be attributed to accidental overdose, while approximately 16% were intentional overdoses in order to commit suicide (DAWN). Additionally, there has not been one reported death due to a marijuana overdose (Facts). NSAIDS, medicines such as aspirin and Tylenol were linked to 7,600 deaths in 1996 (Facts), making these nearly as lethal as their illegal counterparts, yet nobody questions their safety, or calls for their prohibition. Compared to illegal drugs, there are many more lethal activities, including driving a car, participated in daily by the general public, yet these activities, unlike illicit drugs, are considered integral parts of daily life, and the dangers presented are considered accepted risks.

Beyond the direct health impact, prohibition has not been shown to have a strong impact on the demand for drugs in general. Some countries, such as the Netherlands, have legalized “soft drugs” including marijuana and “magic” mushrooms, while others, such as Italy, Portugal, and Spain, have decriminalized the use of all drugs, including heroin and cocaine. They also have government subsidized programs to assist those addicted to “hard drugs,” such as heroin, by providing them with doctor supervised locations to ingest their drugs. The result of these programs has been lower addiction, use, and death rates in users. According to a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry and reported by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), “removal of criminal prohibitions on cannabis possession (decriminalization) will not increase the prevalence of marijuana or any other illicit drug . . . a far greater percentage of Americans age 12 and older (33 percent) report having tried marijuana as do their Dutch counterparts (16 percent), despite the fact that open sale and possession of pot is permitted in the Netherlands.” If prohibition is claimed to lower the use and availability of illicit drugs in the populace, why do facts speak otherwise?

By preventing valid manufacturers from making these products, prohibition increases the dangers associated with drug use by preventing regulation, and forcing drug users to buy products which have no guarantee of purity or dosage. Most deaths associated with heroin are not due to the toxicity of the drug, but are in fact caused by the lack of ability for the user to accurately gauge how much of the actual drug they are ingesting. Ecstasy, or MDMA, related deaths have risen due to misinformation and lack of quality control, not because of the acute toxicity of MDMA itself. “The DanceSafe organization now cites at least 100 ecstasy-related deaths. The vast majority of these, however, were not overdoses but the result of becoming overheated on the dance floor or ingesting pills sold as ecstasy that were actually dangerous substances like DXM, a cough suppressant that can cause overheating if taken in large quantities, and the stimulant PMA.” (Salon). Injuries and deaths associated with this side-effect of prohibition would be eliminated if drugs were simply made legal, and real education regarding the actual dangers made available.

Apart from the increased health risks of drugs, prohibition increases street violence by forcing the sale of drugs to the black market. This encourages the formation of organized crime in order to manufacture and distribute these substances under the control of a group of individuals. Additionally, the structure of laws are such that adults are punished more heavily than minors, and due to this, minors are enlisted by these organized crime units, provided with guns or other weapons, and used to transport or sell these drugs, with the knowledge that if they are caught, they will not be as heavily punished.

With this increase of violence and the focus on criminalizing drug use,the criminal justice system is being overloaded. According to the United States Department of Justice, “In 1999 the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) estimated that there were 1,532,200 State and local arrests for drug abuse violations in the United States.” Prisons are being filled with non-violent drug offenders, who “make up 58 percent of the federal prison population.” (ACLU). Because this obsession with locking up drug sellers and users, violent criminals walk free every day for lack of space.

In addition, mandatory minimum sentencing laws are unfairly distributed, jailing some for life, simply for selling a chemical which the buyer chooses to ingest, making it a harsher crime to participate in a consensual act than to murder someone in the second degree. Arrest rates also do not follow the demographics of the U.S. population, as “According to the 1991 Uniform Crime Reports, 58% of the drug arrests were of whites versus 41% for blacks . . . This sounds evenly distributed until you consider that, in 1991, blacks composed only 12% of the U.S. population.” (McWilliams). Crack cocaine, the “freebased” form of cocaine, is simply powdered cocaine combined with baking soda to allow the user to smoke it, and carries a significantly stiffer penalty for sale and possession than does the powdered form. This is unjust as they are chemically identical, and interact with the brain identically. Unfortunately, crack users tend to be poor and from the inner city, while powdered cocaine users are generally more wealthy, due to the incredible difference in cost between the two forms. This causes a severe racial disparity in the execution of drug laws, and subsequently a large minority population in prisons.

By increasing the rate of consumption, increasing the inherent dangers present with drug use, and filling our jails, the “War on Drugs” presents an immense monetary drain on the United States Economy. “In 2000 the Clinton administration spent more than $17.9 billion.” (Facts) on the drug war. For comparison, “The President is requesting $44.5 billion in discretionary appropriations for the Department of Education in fiscal year 2002.” (Dept. of Ed.) That means that the US is spending 40% as much on fighting the drug war as it is on educating the next generation. Imagine the benefits to society if that eighteen billion dollars was instead spent on education; the impact of a 40% budget increase would be enormous. Is the threat of illegal drugs so great, that fighting the personal choice to ingest a substance which alters one’s consciousness is more important than fully educating the next generation of adults?

Additionally, by prohibiting the legal sale of drugs, the government misses an opportunity to raise an incredible amount of tax revenue. “The international illicit drug business generates as much as $400 billion in trade annually according to the United Nations International Drug Control Program. That amounts to 8% of all international trade and is comparable to the annual turnover in textiles, according to the study.” (UN). By taxing this immense industry, this money could then be used to pay for schools, drug treatment programs, and health care. Legalization would not only eliminate the $18 billion per year spent to fight the drug war, but it would in turn raise at least $40 billion per year in tax revenue, if one assumes a mild 10% tax on the drug trade, a number nearly equivalent to the entire US education budget.

Despite what is officially claimed, the “War on Drugs” is not being won, is not protecting the children, and is increasing the destructive characteristics of the drugs themselves. It is imperative for this country, not only to improve health, education, and fiscal well being, but also to restore the vital freedom of choice over one’s consciousness, that these chemicals and plants be legalized. Regulating drugs is regulating thought; it is regulating the freedom to do what we wish with our own bodies; and it is regulating the freedom of choice. It is illegal, immoral, and unforgivable. As Abraham Lincoln said, “A prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded.”

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