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Drug Legalization Isn't the Answer

John P. Walters

Since 2001 the number of young people using illegal drugs has dropped by 900,000 to about 2.7 million. This drop is an important development for all the obvious reasons, plus one. Substance abuse is a disease. Until recently, we failed to grasp the nature of this disease and how to reduce the suffering it causes.

For decades, we did not want to believe that alcohol or drugs could have the power to take over our lives, despite the evidence we witnessed when our loved ones grappled with drug addiction. We did not understand how this disease could alter personality and steal individual freedom. We have paid a high price for this confusion.

We will not quickly change the powerful forces that have for decades presented drug use as thrilling and fun. For most drug addicts, the first foray into drug use begins when they are young and have no expectation of becoming addicted. Nonetheless, they do become addicted and their denial increases as dependency worsens.

We can prevent and successfully treat this disease, however. There are millions of Americans in recovery who are staying clean and sober each day. The rate of drug use among high-school seniors has been cut nearly in half since its peak years of 1978 and 1979, to 22.3% in 2008. Prevention and treatment have been producing steady results.

The criminal justice system has been transformed over the past 15 years. Adult and juvenile drug courts are now common in most states. Nationwide there are more than 2,000 drug courts pushing low-level offenders to get treatment when drug use brings them into the criminal justice system. Child welfare and family courts also push drug treatment — many endangerment and neglect cases involve an adult with a substance abuse problem. The criminal justice system has become the most powerful force in the country supporting addiction treatment, exactly the opposite of the critics’ depiction.

Intervention is spreading in the health-care system with the prospect that screening for substance abuse will become as common as checking blood pressure for hypertension. In addition, we have legally and successfully instituted random drug screening programs in schools that are as promising as systems in place in the military and many workplaces. The rate of positive tests in the workplace are lower today than they have been since comprehensive national reporting began — 3.8% of workers tested positive for drugs in 2007, down from 13.6% in 1988.

What is the alternative to the progress we are making? We have made the kind of compromises with alcohol that some suggest making with illegal drugs. Nonetheless, roughly one in 10 of the more than 100 million Americans who drink each month suffer from alcoholism. Illegal drug use touches roughly 19 million Americans each month with more than one-third of those suffering from abuse or addiction. Will these people be better off if drugs are legalized?

Those who propose abandoning control efforts never face up to the consequences of an America where upwards of 50 million or more people use drugs regularly. Nor do they consider the consequences to Latin America if such a vast number of people in the U.S. use drugs.

Alternative regulatory schemes give little attention to how a free society will function when it sells known disease-causing poisons that are more powerful than alcohol and that profoundly attack the user’s capacity for free action.

The policies that drive down drug use attack both demand and supply. Controlling supply reduces consumption as it chokes off access to all types of drugs. No nation that has tried to avoid controlling supply has been able to stand by its permissive approach. Sweden, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom have all experimented with being more accepting of drugs, only to backtrack later when the resulting destruction was clear. The U.S. has also been more permissive in the past than it is today, only to pay a huge price for the mistake. The predictable costs in addiction and disease are unsustainable.

We have seen dramatic proof that institutions of law and democracy can prevail over narco-terrorists. Colombia has attacked drug production and the violent groups that profited from it. In the process, it transformed its national security and made its streets safer. What nation in South America — or anywhere — has reduced violence and human rights abuses more than Colombia since 2002? Could President Álvaro Uribe have done this by surrendering to the drug trade?

Today there is terrible violence in Mexico. Those who carry out attacks do so with the intention of making us stop resisting them. But what narco-terrorists want is power, not control of the drug trade. These terrorists are growing more violent because over the past three to four years the money that criminal organizations get from trafficking meth and cocaine has dropped sharply — perhaps by 50% or more. To bankroll their activities, they are now kidnapping, extorting and grabbing power. The drug trade is a tool, not the cause of these violent criminal groups.

Making it easier to produce and traffic drugs will strengthen, not weaken, these terrorists. Mexican President Felipe Calderon knows this, which is why he and a large majority of his people are fighting for their democracy and are reaching out for our help.

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