Monday, April 21, 2008

Proceeding With The Drug War Debate

To respond to the comments from last week's post:

1) The results I reported come from a National Survey on Drug Use and Health self-reported survey. I can't seem to find the number of survey members, but given the ease of self-report type surveys, I'm sure there were more than enough survey members to make it statistically significant. Questions of accuracy are a bit more difficult to determine, but any statistical survey of drug use is bound to raise questions of accuracy.

2) I'm glad you took the time to question my reliance on the survey's numbers. I nearly did a post several months ago about what studies I tend to be more suspicious of why, but I never quite got around to it. There are several reasons here for me to look at these results as more or less accurate- 1- The survey was published by the Department of Health and Human Service's Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The department has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo when it comes to drugs, so I'm less likely to view a survey that seemingly contradicts the status quo with suspicion. 2- I'm less suspicious of pure numbers than I am of loaded results. The survey itself is presented in an informational matter and doesn't seem to be structured with policy goals in mind. 3- The numbers I've posted are relatively straight forward. In particular, the second chart simply reports on the percentage of first-time drug users who used the same drug two years later. And as Jacob Sullum writes in his post on Reason, the percentages in the first chart, gaged by the criteria they use to identify dependence, have the potential to be higher than they actually are. And 4- We're all a bit biased. Of course I believe it if it supports what I say!

3) To B. Rose, I'm not trying to weigh anything, I'm just trying to make the point that the government should not be able to tell a free individual what he or she can and can't put into his or her body. It's a question of morality as far as I'm concerned- just in the same way a democratic majority should not be able to silence the speech of the minority, a democratic majority should not be able to infringe on the free choices we make about our own bodies.

I tend to find that my moral point of view is further supported by economics and science. The cost of the war on drugs is tremendous- hundreds of billions of dollars every year at every level of government. Whatever your political viewpoint, those are tax dollars that could be put to better use, whether they're returned to the tax payer are used for other forms of social spending- Much of that money could be used to treat drug abuse. Drug prohibition creates a black market where the sellers tend to be large, organized groups of criminals. Without the government to settle disputes, black market disputes and turf wars are settled through violence at the expense of our inner cities. Additionally, the drug war itself creates a militaristic mentality in our police forces, as the way we fight the war on drugs has come to resemble the war in Iraq more than it reflects traditional standards of community policing. As I've blogged and linked too many times before, the costs of this war include the lives of innocent American citizens.

Finally, this survey tends to report what I've believed to be true for several years now- Drugs are not as dangerous as we're told they are. Maybe there's no good reason to try heroin, but a majority of us are not going to become addicts after trying it. Physical addiction is certainly real for a number of drugs (opiates, nicotine, alcohol in some cases), but even those numbers would be less than those who are merely dependent on drugs- The difference being that physical addiction is actually linked to the biochemical composition of the substances in question while dependence refers more to a compulsion and not any actual biochemical factors. My point is that drugs are demonized as evil substances while the truth of the matter is that drug abusers are people who make bad decisions, not good people trapped againast their will. If you just look at the way many so-called addicts will switch from one drug to another, you'll see that such drug abusers are hooked on getting high, not hooked on any one particular substance.

Finally, you mention the costs incurred by others as a result of drug abuse. It's a fair point, but it ignores the two hundred pound gorilla in the room- alcohol. Alcohol causes thousands (hundreds of thousands? I really don't know) of deaths every year, through drunk driving accidents, drunken arguments, and domestic disputes. If harm caused to innocents was a compelling rationale for drug illegality should join the rest of the drugs on the banned list.

But beyond that, I believe that drug legalization on the whole would reduce the number of deaths currently caused by drugs and the drug war, for several reasons:

A- Experience with alcohol prohibition showed us that drug prohibition does not tend to decrease drug use. Alcohol use actually increased during the time of prohibition, as did organized crime associated with bootlegging and the number of deaths of people drinking homemade moonshine. (During prohibition some people made alcohol on the cheap when they couldn't but it- today, it's much more cost effective to buy your own.) When it comes to illegal drugs today, other than marijuana, where large numbers of users at one time are turned away as they get older because of the drugs illegality, I don't believe drug legalization would have any dramatic effect on the numbers of people who use drugs. (To return to marijuana, large percentages of people use the drug despite it's legal status. Far fewer use harder drugs. This is because of social constraints and common sense, something that would not vanish if drugs were made legal.)

B- As I mentioned above, no more deaths caused by the fact that drugs are a black market business and no more violence associated with black markets. Also, no more deaths of police officers implementing the war on drugs, no more innocent lives lost in poorly executed drug raids.

C- Less property crime and less personal violence caused by drug addicts- drugs would be more affordable, meaning less need to resort to crime in order to get money for a fix and more importantly, drugs could be provided legally for drug addicts by the government or charitable or community groups.

Before I finish, you also mention health care costs- regardless of what you feel the government's role regarding drug abuse should be, the overall result of ending the war on drugs would be a net gain to tax payers.

I've argued about the drug issue before with friends and family, not because I'm some sort of hippie crack pot but because drug prohibition is a moral issue with real world consequences. It's not just that drug legalization is the right thing to do- we'd be better off because of it.


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