Realism needed in drug, alcohol policy

October 29, 2009


— During his immersion in his new job, Gil Kerlikowske attended a focus group of 7-year-old girls and was mystified by their talk about “farm parties.” Then he realized they meant “pharm parties” — sampling pharmaceuticals from their parents’ medicine cabinets. What he learned — besides that young humans have less native sense than young dachshunds have — is that his job has wrinkles unanticipated when he became director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

“People,” he says, “want a different conversation” about drug policies. With his first report to the president early next year, he could increase the quotient of realism.

Law enforcement has a “can-do culture,” but it also instructs its practitioners about what cannot be done, at least by law enforcement alone. Kerlikowske, who was top cop in Buffalo and then Seattle, knows that officers sweeping drug users from cities’ streets feel as though they are “regurgitating perps through the system.”

He dryly notes that “not many people think the drug war is a success.” Furthermore, the recession’s toll on state budgets has concentrated minds on the costs of drug offense incarcerations — costs that in some states are larger than expenditures on secondary education. Fortunately, the first drug courts were established two decades ago and today there are 2,300 nationwide, pointing drug policy away from punishment and toward treatment.

Kerlikowske is familiar with Portugal’s experience since 2001 with decriminalization of all drugs, including heroin and cocaine. Nature made Kerlikowske laconic and experience has made him prudent, so he steers clear of the “L” word, legalization, even regarding marijuana.

Asked if he thinks that is a “gateway” drug, he answers obliquely: “You don’t find many heroin users who didn’t start with marijuana.” And he warns that more intense cultivation of marijuana is yielding a product with notably high THC content — the potent ingredient.

In 1998, the United Nations, with its penchant for empty grandstanding, committed its members to “eliminating or significantly reducing” opium, cocaine and marijuana production by 2008, en route to a “drug-free world.” Nowadays the U.N. is pleased that the drug trade has “stabilized.”

The Economist magazine says this means that more than 200 million people — almost 5 percent of the world’s adult population — take illegal drugs, the same proportion as a decade ago. The annual U.S. bill for attempting to diminish the supply of drugs is $40 billion. Of the 1.5 million Americans arrested each year on drug offenses, half a million are incarcerated. “Tougher drug laws are the main reason why one in five black American men spend some time behind bars,” The Economist said.

“There is no correlation between the harshness of drug laws and the incidence of drug-taking: citizens living under tough regimes (notably America but also Britain) take more drugs, not fewer.” Do cultural differences explain this? Evidently not: “Even in fairly similar countries tough rules make little difference to the number of addicts: harsh Sweden and more liberal Norway have precisely the same addiction rates.”

The good news is the progress America has made against tobacco, which is more addictive than most illegal drugs. And then there is alcohol.

In “Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson,” historian David S. Reynolds writes that in 1820, Americans spent on liquor a sum larger than the federal government’s budget. By the mid-1820s, annual per capita consumption of absolute alcohol reached seven gallons, more than three times today’s rate. “Most employers,” Reynolds reports, “assumed that their workers needed strong drink for stimulation: a typical workday included two bells, one rung at 11 a.m. and the other at 4 p.m., that summoned employees for alcoholic drinks.”

The elderly Walt Whitman said, “It is very hard for the present generation anyhow to understand the drinkingness of those years. ... it is quite incommunicable.” In 1842, a Springfield, Ill., teetotaler named Lincoln said that liquor was “like the Egyptian angel of death, commissioned to slay, if not the first, the fairest born in every family.” Which helps explain why the nation sobered up (somewhat; these things are relative). One reason crack cocaine use has declined is that a generation of inner-city young people saw what it did to their parents and older siblings.

Kerlikowske can hope that social learning, although slow and intermittent, is on his side. But perhaps he knows the axiom that experience is a great teacher, but submits steep bills.


marcdeveraux 8 years, 4 months ago

More propaganda from the police. Beer and tobacco are the gateway drugs,everyone knows this,except the police . The fact is, police have to admit they have,along with political and the church leaders jailed millions of innocent people for marijuana.The police have stolen peoples houses and property. The police have destroyed millions of families with the lie that marijuana is evil.All of this to try to control people . Where I live marijuana is a common fact of life for millions .It is harvest time , and growers are winning the war on medical marijuana in 14 states. Next year California votes on recreational use of the good weed. Other states will follow.

bankboy119 8 years, 4 months ago


The article says that, "The paper, published by Cato in April, found that in the five years after personal possession was decriminalized, illegal drug use among teens in Portugal declined and rates of new HIV infections caused by sharing of dirty needles dropped, while the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction more than doubled."

The illegal drug use they mention, is that drugs that were still illegal? Or the same ones that used to be illegal? I couldn't find the answer in the article.

ralphralph 8 years, 4 months ago

I don't think it's that simple a question, based on what I've seen from close-up involvement in several aspects of the process. The "war on drugs" has been about as successful as prohibition, and undoubtedly is a monumental failure with even more monumental costs, and has bred an enormous criminal enterprise that spans the globe in a way that would be the envy of rumrunners and bootleggers. Even so, I know from close observation that the drugs in question will just as undoubtedly be devastating to a large number of people if left unchecked. Will that be a larger or smaller number? I don't know. I do know that the substances in question will wreck lives, and that leaves you to question whether you can stand by without even trying to intervene. My heart says "no", while my mind has been leaning strongly toward "yes". I cannot, though, get comfortable with the idea that we will tell those actual and potential addicts to just go ahead and do it, and maybe we'll help you get treatment after you flame out. I'd be more inclined to say if we are going to legalize, that we leave you not only the choice but also the consequences ---- if you want to use, then have at it; but if and when it brings you down, don't look to me for help. I think that's where the brain ends up: your choice whether to use, your responsibility if it doesn't work out for you. I know it won't go that way, though; it will go, from the users' viewpoint: "Don't tell me what I can or can't do!" Leading to "You have to help me". I'll support legalization if we can, at that point, say, "Piss off. Take care of yourself".

marcdeveraux 8 years, 4 months ago

The problem with the anti marijuana side is that they cannot seem to understand that marijuana is NOT addictive. I repeat for the uninformed, marijuana is NOT addictive.The hard drugs should be separate from marijuana. Anyone who actually has studied the facts knows this. There is ,maybe 10 % of he public who have addictive personalities that will abuse whatever there is .If marijuana was addictive and it led to hard drugs ,you would have millions and millions of addicts over the age of 45.We do not. Please, those of you uninformed on this subject, such as the police and their political allies read up on what is really going on .You are being willfully ignorant ,and it appears that you are proud of your ignorance.The marijuana side of the drug war is over, some states just are not up to date on the facts.

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