Time to redirect the war on drugs

May 22, 2001|By Philip D. Harvey

WASHINGTON -- The deaths of a missionary and her child over Peru last month serve as a brutal reminder that the war on drugs is a shooting war.

The CIA's continuing involvement with the Peruvian government to intercept drug runners also exemplifies the sadly mistaken belief that America's drug problem can be solved by attacking sources of supply.

Indeed, Donnie R. Marshall, the administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, has recently written that the demand for drugs does not drive the supply; rather it's the other way around.

The drug problem, he and others believe, is a result not of a huge demand for substances that make people feel good but instead is caused by a determined band of "traffickers" whose vile and clever marketing schemes create a demand that would not otherwise exist. The facts do not support this hypothesis.

People always have used substances that alter the mood and the mind. We always will. In early history, fermented beverages of various kinds were common, as were concoctions made from mushrooms and a variety of plants, particularly those of the hemp family. Today, it is most frequently alcohol, caffeine, tobacco, amphetamines, Ecstasy and glue. Groups of youngsters in Inuit villages in Canada have turned to sniffing gasoline in plastic bags.

Our public policies should recognize that people, particularly adolescents, do things that are bad for them. Accordingly, we should not base our laws on the assumption that humans can be made perfect. Indeed, most of us don't even want that.

What we have chosen to do about the normal human urge to ingest or inhale substances that create good feelings is to make a handful of these substances illegal and then invest billions of dollars in chasing down those who use the substances and those who sell them.

The result does not change the fact of drug use.

Rather, the war on drugs compounds the problem by creating the potential for huge profits for those with criminal inclinations. This is done by infusing our law enforcement system with almost limitless opportunities for corruption and by incarcerating hundreds of thousands of American citizens who have committed no act of harm to others and whose lives and whose families' lives have been shattered as a result.

Further, the problem is worsened by corrupting the judicial systems of several of our Latin American neighbors to the point of threatening the very stability of those governments. Moreover, the drug war undermines the civil liberties of every American because phones are more likely to be tapped, property is more likely to be seized and people are more likely to be searched for substances that pose no immediate threat to anyone.

Viewed objectively, our choice of drugs to outlaw has been arbitrary. This is most vividly illustrated by making illegal one of the most benign pharmacological substances ever discovered (marijuana), while imposing virtually no strictures on the sale of a substance which kills several hundred thousand of us every year (tobacco).

To support his argument that the supply of drugs drives the demand rather than the other way around, the DEA's Mr. Marshall has asserted that the drug users depicted in the movie "Traffic" would not "specifically demand crack or heroin" without a well-marketed source of supply. Perhaps not.

Instead, they might "specifically" demand something else to make them feel good. Perhaps a generous prescription of a legal "upper"? (Millions of Americans are hooked on legal drugs). Perhaps alcohol? Perhaps bupropion hydrocholoride, an antidepressant that helps people stop smoking and which now has been shown preliminarily to increase the libido. The demand is there. It is part of our nature.

Whatever the appropriate response of society is to such substances, throwing people in jail for using them and, yes, for selling them to willing buyers is tragically wrong.

It is time to offer help to people who are addicted to drugs. Going undercover to arrest them and locking them away from their families just creates more crime, more misery and more corruption. It does nothing to curb the appetite for drugs.

Philip D. Harvey heads the DKT Liberty Project, a civil liberties group.

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