Sunday, October 16, 2011

Should We Legalize Drugs?

I am concerned about eliminating a motivator to not use or to quit using drugs. Drugs work - they eliminate pain, make you forget, produce euphoria. Then they stop working because you get sick or you crash your car, or you lose your job or you lose your kids or you OD or you get arrested. Sometimes you get arrested before you get irreparably sick or before you lose your kids and as a result of being arrested you become convinced to get clean. I am not sure we should eliminate a convincer.

In addition, our current system is kind of a hybrid of the criminal justice and public health approaches to addiction. A lot of addicts get treatment because they have been mandated through the legal system. Drug courts are empowered to impose treatment as an alternative to jail, addicts who have been busted get treatment to lighten their sentences and parents seek help for kids early on because their kids got mixed up with the law.

There are valid theories that support legalizing drugs: it might eliminate criminal activities around the illicit drug trade, it would reduce crime, it would transform drug addiction from a criminal issue to a public health issue, clean needles would reduce disease etc. In support of those theories people often point to real world examples such as Switzerland and Portugal (see for example The New Yorker article, October 19 issue, about Portugal). But those situations have yielded mixed results, the data is not complete and a lot of subjective interpretation of the data is going on.

I worry that the net effect of legalizing drugs would be more addiction, not less.
I am not saying that avoiding legal consequences would be sufficient motivation for anyone to remain clean (although it might be) nor am I saying that there aren't other motivators aside from legal to seek treatment. I am just saying that the legal system appears to have play a positive role.

PS. The Supreme Court in a landmark and controversial case decided, based upon the doctrine of separation of church and state, that state supported drug rehab programs (whether prison based or via parole or probation conditions or through hospital or clinic rehabs) may NOT require attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous programs because of references that the 12 steps of AA make to a "higher power". This despite many interpretations that a higher power is not necessarily a religious concept - many in AA interpret God to be "Good Orderly Direction" or "Group Of Drunks" (referring to the AA meeting itself) and despite significant evidence that AA and NA are by far the most effective long term drug treatment programs in existence. As you can guess, I strongly disagree with the Supreme Court decision.


  1. Watch this interview with David Simon and Bill Moyers and let me know what you think.

    Even if it is true that for some people criminalization of drugs leads to deterrence or treatment, do you think that benefit outweighs such huge negatives that are the results of the "war on drugs"? It's definitely complicated, but I'm not sure that even if the net effect was more addiction that would necessarily mean it was a failure if you could help address the huge part the drug economy plays in the complete marginalization of the poor and minorities in our society, and redirect all that police money towards treatment and job training (which david simon suggests).

  2. Another thing, which T pointed out, is that in your two examples above, those arrests would still happen even if drugs were decriminalized. I think plenty of the actions people take when they are in the ravages of addiction would remain illegal (dwi, trespassing, robbery, etc) so that aspect would always be there as a deterrent and could funnel some people, whose actions due to addiction have become reckless to the point they are committing crimes beyond just using drugs, into treatment.

  3. I guess that is right, if someone is using legally but while using commits a crime they could be "treated" rather than punished. In fact that is sort of what happens now to a large degree. Someone is high, they drive drunk, they are busted for DWI. That really makes me need to rethink my whole view on this. Thanks

  4. For some reason my first comment didn't go through? It basically said to watch this video with David Simon (creator of the wire) which might change your mind about the whole thing -

  5. Thanks for sending the video, I watched with great interest and am very impressed by David Simon. (as an aside, you know that Bill Moyers has a very personal interest in substance abuse issues. His son, Cope, wrote a book about his own struggles with drugs called Broken, and now works at Hazelden in Minnesota.). I am not smart or informed enough to really weigh in on the big subject of the drug wars. I do find Simon's arguments that we would be much better off if we took all the police money and all the jail money and all the court money used to fight drugs through the penal system and deployed it instead into treatment we would be better off but that there is no political capital available to make that happen no matter how much sense it makes. In the meantime - small anectode: I met with a guy today - 36 year old black male from the south bronx, crack addict for the last ten years - "ten years gone" he said. A year ago he was busted for posession and did 1.5 months in jail and then got probation. Two months ago while on probation he got busted for posession again and his probation officer got him into treatment and if he stays in the treatment program for 90 days and does out patient after that and his urines stay clean he can stay out of jail. His stated motivation for getting clean is simple - he hated jail and does not want to go back. I have no idea if he will get clean and stay clean but the system is almost as Simon describes it - a lot of money is being spent in this case not on the penal aspect but on the treatment aspect, he is getting treatment not punishment. But it is the penal system that got him into treatment and is motivating him to stay in. Its a sad story any way you look at it.



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