Guest Column: Is the war on drugs an effective one?
May 21, 2014
Being a physician isn't always what it's cracked up to be. Sure, the pay is good and physicians rank high on the respect scale. But the hours can be punishingly long, and feeling responsible for the health and welfare of your patients means both understanding and effecting all those elements that impact their lives.
Providing medication to treat asthma or diabetes is easy, but petitioning to ensure clean air or healthy food product, not so easy. Yet, the latter environmental factors are as or more critical than medication in preventing and treating these disorders.
Indeed, environmental factors are crucial considerations in providing successful treatment for virtually all health problems, but particularly so for mental and substance abuse problems.
Which brings me to an extraordinary book by Arthur Benavie, a celebrated Emeritus Professor of Economics at the University of North Carolina.
Professor Benavie, citing the best scientific evidence, explores the impact of America's policy about illegal drugs in his book, "Drugs: America's Holy War."
This slim volume should be required reading. It will be particularly informative for those who work in the substance abuse community and in criminal justice settings.
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Benavie, drawing on literally hundreds of books, articles, scientific studies and academic research, argues that United States drug policy, far from preventing problems caused by drugs, contributes to their proliferation.
Benavie insists that most of what you think you know about illicit or illegal drugs is wrong, and most of what you learn from the Office of Drug Control Policy and the Drug Enforcement Administration is also wrong.
Benavie cites the work of drug researchers from law, sociology, history and pharmacology who overwhelmingly condemn our drug policy. He notes that all 23 blue-ribbon commissions that studied the topic in the past century have opposed a war on drugs.
The American Society of Criminology concludes that "Enforcement strategies have consumed resources, aggravated health risks associated with drugs, and increased the levels of violence surrounding drug markets."
Adds Raymond Kendall, head of Interpol, "The war is lost and making drug use illegal is useless and even dangerous."
For Benavie, drug research has had virtually no impact on legislators, crusading district attorneys, and many others in law enforcement because, "The war on drugs is a holy war, a crusade aimed at eliminating certain 'evil' drugs and punishing their sinful users."
Adds Stanford economist Thomas Sowell, "Policies are judged by their consequences, but crusades are judged by how good they make the crusaders feel."
Hoping to convince you to read this mind bending book here, in no particular order, are some of the good professor's shattering conclusions:
• Scientific studies have shown that the war on drugs, as compared to drug use, is a major cause of homicide, property crime, the degradation of minorities, the spread of AIDS, the corruption of public officials, the erosion of civil liberties, and a colossal waste of tax dollars.
• Punitive prohibition of illicit drugs has been a financial bonanza to the police, the military, government agencies, prison officials, and the drug treatment industry.
• You rarely hear criticism or doubt about making criminals out of people who possess illicit substances, even if such people are addicted, intellectually challenged, or mentally ill.
• Research demonstrates that humans have craved psychoactive substances, that this craving extends to all societies, and goes back to prehistory. Thus, we should respect peoples desire for psychoactive drugs on a cost-benefit basis alone.
• Contrary to what government agencies and most media would have Americans believe, a substantial majority of those who consume illegal drugs use them only occasionally, and are not addicted. Most heroin users, cocaine users, and amphetamine users are not addicted. Moreover, there is little documented injury to health caused by occasional drug consumption.
• American society would benefit enormously if the government controlled the manufacture and sales of currently illegal drugs instead of allowing the underworld to do so.
In sum, the professor makes a compelling argument for the controlled legalization of all currently illicit drugs. What's your argument?
Incline Village resident Andrew Whyman, MD, is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist. He can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.