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The Drug Legalization Debate: What's the Real Issue?

By Clifford A. Schaffer

This document attempts to define the real areas of agreement and disagreement between those who support the war on drugs, and those who do not. The statements I make below about the beliefs of the respective sides are based on my personal experience with talking and debating with literally thousands of people over the last several years. While the opinions I give below will vary from person to person, they hold true for the vast majority of people I have encountered on each side.

Why I wrote this.

Debates about drug policy can get to be pretty complicated pretty quickly. Some of the reasons for this are obvious - drug abuse is a problem with many causes and effects throughout society. It would be perfectly easy to get involved in discussing the details of one aspect of the drug problem and to lose sight of the problem as a whole.

Also, I have noticed a consistent tendency among supporters of the drug war to be confused about the real issues. For example, they often tend to assume that anyone who supports drug policy reform must be a drug user, or someone who favors or wants to promote the use of drugs. This, of course, is not the case at all. Many of the supporters of reform are people who have never used illegal drugs and have no intention of using them. Or they tend to ask things like "Why do you want to make more crack babies?" The truth is that no one in their right mind wants to see more crack babies and those who support reform do so because they believe that better policies could reduce the number of crack babies.

In this document I will attempt to summarize the various facets of our approach to drug policy and define where there seems to be agreement or disagreement between those who support reform, and those who support the drug war.

Is drug use immoral?

Opinion varies on both sides, although drug war supporters are clearly more likely to feel that drug use is intrinsically immoral. But there are also people on the side of reform who have essentially the same feelings about drug use.

That is, many supporters of reform ("legalization") do not approve of drug use or abuse in any way and even feel that it is "immoral".

Are drugs dangerous?

Both sides agree that drugs can be dangerous to some people. Supporters of reform will point out that the legal drugs are more dangerous than the illegal drugs, so the laws don't relate to this argument anyway.

Supporters of the drug war seem to make the illogical leap that because drugs are dangerous or immoral, therefore the best approach to the problem is to throw people in prison. This, of course, is illogical. There are lots of problems in society which are either dangerous and/or immoral, but that doesn't mean that prison is the best solution to all of them.

Should we have more treatment?

Both sides seem to agree that there should be more and better drug treatment.

Should we have more education?

Both sides seem to agree that there should be more and better education on drugs.

Should we have better prevention efforts?

Both sides seem to agree that we should have more and better efforts to prevent people from becoming involved with drugs in the first place. (As long as "prevention" does not include criminal punishment.)

What about the medical uses?

For recognized medicines, such as morphine, both sides agree that doctors should be free to prescribe it where necessary. The supporters of the drug war generally don't seem to recognize or understand why it is not being prescribed where necessary.

For marijuana, the supporters of the drug war are of mixed opinion. Some support the medical use of marijuana, or at least see the futility in persecuting people who are sick, even if it wasn't good for them. Others, the more extreme drug warriors, maintain that marijuana has no medical uses at all, or that other drugs would do better.

Criminal Punishment

This is the only area where there is clear and consistent disagreement between the two sides.

Supporters of the drug war tend to feel that some drugs ought to be illegal (people ought to be put in jail), in order to discourage use, or to express society's disapproval.

Supporters of reform say that criminal penalties for private drug possession and use are senseless and destructive.

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