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Should illegal drugs be decriminalized?


Arnold S. Trebach, J.D., Ph.D.

The dynamics of drug addiction are a complex puzzle to which there are no easy or simplistic solutions. Out of frustration and anger at being unable to curb drug abuse, the United States led much of the world in imposing criminal penalties on possession and sale of certain drugs. Those criminal penalties, which went into effect on a national scale on March 1, 1915, constitute the core of drug prohibition.

In the minds of many good people, these criminal sanctions are sacred because they allegedly are the main protection for our people against the allure of drugs that could destroy our society, especially its children. Those who advocate the repeal of drug prohibition, it is alleged, are playing an intellectual game of Russian roulette with the lives of our kids.

My view is quite the opposite. I believe that there was never any rational justification for the creation of drug prohibition around the turn of the century when the campaign to impose it began. Hysteria and demagogic politics dominated the discourse on the subject then, as now. There is no evidence that our people were being destroyed by the free availability of drugs. There indeed is powerful evidence, however, that drug prohibition did not prevent millions of our people from purchasing and abusing drugs in the illegal market. There is also evidence that drug prohibition caused an immense amount of crime, corruption, the waste of billions of dollars, the invasion of fundamental American freedoms, and the prevention of the proper medical treatment of many patients suffering from organically based pain or addiction or both.

The complexities of dealing with addiction require the subtle, sophisticated, and often delicate approaches of the fields of medicine, psychiatry, social work, education, and religion. The blunt instrument of the criminal law has no place in this complicated human endeavor, except at its outer edges. If a person drives drunk, for example, that is the business of the police. However, in the prevention and treatment of that drunk driver the police and the criminal law should have virtually no role. The insistence of society that they should dominate has caused more harm than most people imagine.

Therefore, the task of rational leaders -- those who are truly concerned about the welfare of our children -- is to devise strategies for pushing the police and prison-keepers to the borders of the problem and then to invite healers and teachers into the middle ground. If there is a way of doing that while keeping the structure of drug prohibition in place, I am not aware of it. Thus, the full repeal of drug prohibition is a necessary and rational precondition -- not a radical or irresponsible action -- for dealing with drug abuse in this society. Repeal would also virtually eliminate most of the crime, violence, and corruption connected with the drug scene under current law and enforcement strategies.


Arnold S. Trebach, J.D., Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus at American University and founder of the Drug Policy Foundation in Washington, D.C. He can be reached by e-mail at

Joseph A. Califano, Jr., LL.B., is president of The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA). He has served as U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare.


Joseph A. Califano, Jr., LL.B.

The objective of a drug-free America, brushed aside by advocates of legalization, is a statement of hope that a generation of children can come of age largely free of the life-destroying effects of illegal drugs. Drugs like marijuana, heroin and cocaine are not dangerous because they are illegal; they are illegal because they are dangerous.  If drugs were legalized, it is the nation's children who could suffer long-lasting, perhaps permanent damage. 

The boomlet to legalize drugs like heroin, cocaine and marijuana is founded in myths, not realities.  Here are some of those myths:

Myth 1: There's been no progress in the war on drugs. The National Household Survey on Drug Abuse reports that current drug use in America has fallen by half in the last fifteen years, demonstrating that there has been progress in the war on drugs.

Myth 2: Whether to use drugs and become hooked is an adult decision. Hardly anyone in America begins drug use after age 21. An individual who does not smoke, use drugs or abuse alcohol by 21 is virtually certain never to do so. That's why the nicotine pushers fight so strenuously to kill efforts to keep their stuff away from kids.

Myth 3: Legalized drugs would be available for adults and not to children. Nothing in the American experience gives any credence to our ability to keep legal drugs from children. It's illegal for children to purchase cigarettes and alcohol and yet three million adolescents smoke, constituting a $1-billion-a-year market, and twelve million underage Americans drink, a $10-billion-a-year market.

Myth 4: Greater availability and legal acceptability of drugs would not increase use. This defies human nature.  In the 1970s we de facto decriminalized marijuana. The result? A soaring increase in marijuana use, particularly among youngsters. Today, we have 50 million nicotine addicts, 18 million alcoholics and alcohol abusers, and 6 million drug addicts. It is logical to conclude that, if drugs are easier to obtain, less expensive, and socially acceptable, more individuals will use them. With legalization, experts believe the number of cocaine addicts alone could jump beyond the number of alcoholics.

Myth 5: Marijuana is a benign drug. Marijuana is particularly harmful to children and young teens.  It can impair short-term memory and ability to maintain attention span; it inhibits intellectual, social and emotional development, just when young people are learning in school. CASA's study shows a powerful statistical correlation between using marijuana and use of other drugs such as heroin and cocaine. Recent neuroscientific studies give clues to why this strong statistical link exists. They indicate that marijuana, cocaine, nicotine, alcohol and heroin all affect dopamine levels through common pathways in the brain. Another study demonstrates that cessation of marijuana use brings on withdrawal symptoms, which may encourage a user to try drugs such as cocaine or heroin.

Today, most kids don't use illicit drugs, but all of them, particularly the poorest, are vulnerable to abuse and addiction. Russian roulette is not a game anyone should play. Legalizing drugs not only is playing Russian roulette with children, it is slipping a couple of extra bullets into the chamber.

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