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Chapter Six: The Role of Alcohol and Tobacco in the Drug Legalization Debate


I. Their Argument

Proponents of drug legalization advance the argument that to the extent alcohol and tobacco may be freely consumed, it is hypocritical to make other drugs such as marijuana and cocaine illegal. They cite the individual and social harm caused by both tobacco and alcohol to support their argument.

II. Our Argument

Two responses immediately come to mind when addressing the legalizers' argument. First, simply because we have as a society have chosen to legalize some dangerous substances does not lead to the conclusion that we should legalize all dangerous substances. Second, the legalizers' argument is logically flawed: When they compare the damage caused by alcohol and tobacco to that caused by drugs such as cocaine and marijuana they are comparing apples and oranges (or more specifically, legal to illegal drugs). Alcohol and tobacco are legal, and, according to our analysis in Chapter One [Addiction Rates], are used much more frequently than illegal drugs. Because their use is greater, the amount of damage they cause will also be greater. But this is not to say that one "dose" of alcohol is inherently more dangerous than one "dose" of cocaine. As James Q. Wilson explains, predictions about the harms of cocaine that assume its illegality tells us little about what damage cocaine would do if it were legal.111 Thus, the proper analysis is not to compare damage caused by cocaine to that caused by alcohol under the present system, but instead is to compare the harm likely caused by legalized cocaine to that caused by alcohol.

But let us look more closely at the legalizers' position itself.

1. Tobacco. Certainly tobacco kills people. Nonetheless, it is disingenuous to say that as such it is a more dangerous substance than either cocaine or marijuana. For while it may harm one's health, tobacco does not affect one's intellectual processing or decision-making ability. As Professor Wilson explains:

Tobacco shortens one's life, cocaine debases it. Nicotine alters one's habits, cocaine alters one's soul. The heavy use of crack, unlike the heavy use of tobacco, corrodes those natural sentiments of sympathy and duty that constitute our human nature and make possible our social life."'

Think of it this way: Research fairly convincingly has demonstrated that cholesterol is bad for people, and in fact may be responsible for a large amount of heart disease in the United States. In essence, cholesterol kills. But to take this premise and then argue that because we allow people to eat red meat we should also allow them to smoke crack is both unsophisticated and unpersuasive reasoning. Similarly, to argue that because we do not allow people to smoke crack we should not allow them to eat red meat also displays a rather monumental lack of common sense. And although cholesterol may kill you, it does not lead to the types of bizarre, destructive behavior that is associated with most illegal drugs.

2. Alcohol. Alcohol is somewhat harder to justify, for not only can it kill people but it does in fact alter one's behavior and may encourage antisocial and destructive activity. But again, this admission does not me-an that one must view alcohol and cocaine as equivalent. First, a far greater percentage of people who use cocaine become addicted to the substance than do people who use alcohol. Recall that in Chapter One, we discovered that the addiction rate for cocaine may be as high as 75%.113 Conversely, the addiction rate for alcohol is about 10%.114 One is thus far more likely to become addicted to cocaine than to alcohol. Second, the relapse rate (the percentage of people who quit the drug who later begin to take it again), is much higher for cocaine.115

In short, do not let proponents of legalization argue that just because tobacco and alcohol are legal, so too should be cocaine and marijuana. First, just because we sanction some dangerous substances does not mean that we should allow all of them. Second, it is misleading to compare the damage caused by legal drugs with that caused by illegal drugs -- instead we should compare the risks of alcohol and tobacco with those of legalized cocaine and marijuana. Likely we would find that the latter are much more dangerous than the former.

Third, tobacco does not alter one's behavior and encourage violent behavior as do many illegal drugs. Fourth, alcohol, while admittedly dangerous, is much less addictive than presently illegal drugs and also is easier to quit once addicted. Do not compound problems simply because they are difficult to solve-keep illegal drugs illegal and at the same time try to discourage alcohol and tobacco use.

111 James Q. Wilson, "Against the Legalization of Drugs," Commentary, February 1990.

112 Id.

113 George Church, "'Thinking the Unthinkable," Time, May 30,1988. 114 id.

115 "Issues and Comments to respond to Legalization of Drugs," Office of Congressional and Public Affairs Drug Enforcement Administration Publication, May 1988.

Chapter Six Summary Sheet: The Role of Alcohol and Tobacco in the Drug Legalization Debate

If they say...

Since alcohol and tobacco are legal, marijuana and cocaine should also be legal.

Then you say...

Just because some dangerous substances are legal does not mean that all dangerous substances should also be legal.

One cannot properly compare the harm associated with tobacco and alcohol use with the harm associated with cocaine and marijuana use, because you are comparing legal drugs with illegal drugs. And as discussed in Chapter One, legalizing a drug makes it more dangerous. (See last paragraph, page 7).

Although tobacco harms one's health, it does not alter one's mental processes, nor does it create bizarre, violent behavior. [James Q. Wilson, "Against the Legalization of Drugs," Commentary, February 1990].

Although alcohol is harmful, it is much less addictive than cocaine: Studies suggest that alcohol has an addiction rate of 10%, whereas cocaine has an addiction rate as high as 75%. [George Church. "Thinking the Unthinkable,"' Time, May 30, 1988].

Do not legalize drugs because alcohol and tobacco are harmful: keep illegal drugs illegal and try to decrease use of the others.


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