Pubdate: Jan 2001
Source: Scientific American (US)
Copyright: 2000 Scientific American, Inc
Author: Rodger Doyle


Sociology Drug Abuse

In 1999 illegal drug use resulted in 555,000 emergency room visits, of 
which 30 percent were for cocaine, 16 percent for marijuana or hashish, 15 
percent for heroin or morphine, and 2 percent for amphetamines. Alcohol in 
combination with other drugs accounted for 35 percent. This is not the 
first time that the U.S. has suffered a widespread health crisis brought on 
by drug abuse. In the 1880s (legal) drug companies began selling 
medications containing cocaine, which had only recently been synthesized 
from the leaves of the coca plant. Furthermore, pure cocaine could be 
bought legally at retail stores. Soon there were accounts of addiction and 
sudden death from cardiac arrest and stroke among users, as well as 
cocaine-related crime. Much of the blame for crime fell on blacks, although 
credible proof of the allegations never surfaced. Reports of health and 
crime problems associated with the drug contributed to rising public 
pressure for reform, which led in time to a ban on retail sales of cocaine 
under the Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914. This and later legislation 
contributed to the near elimination of the drug in the 1920s.

Cocaine use revived in the 1970s, long after its deleterious effects had 
faded from memory. By the mid-1980s history repeated itself as the U.S. 
rediscovered the dangers of the drug, including its new form, crack. Crack 
was cheap and could be smoked, a method of delivery that intensified the 
pleasure and the risk. Media stories about its evils, sometimes 
exaggerated, were apparently the key element in turning public sentiment 
strongly in favor of harsh sentences, even for possession. The result was 
one of the most important federal laws of recent years, the Anti-Drug Abuse 
Act of 1986. It was enacted hurriedly without benefit of committee 
hearings, so great was the pressure to do something about the problem. 
Because crack was seen as uniquely addictive and destructive, the law 
specified that the penalty for possession of five grams would be the same 
as that for possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine.

African-Americans were much more likely than whites to use crack, and so, 
as in the first drug epidemic, they came under greater obloquy. Because of 
the powder cocaine/crack penalty differential and other inequities in the 
justice system, blacks were far more likely to go to prison for drug 
offenses than whites, even though use of illicit drugs overall was about 
the same among both races. Blacks account for 13 percent of those who use 
illegal drugs but 74 percent of those sentenced to prison for possession. 
In fact, the 1986 federal law and certain state laws led to a substantial 
rise in the number of people arrested for possession of illegal drugs, at a 
time when arrests for sale and manufacture had stabilized.

The data in the chart catch the declining phase of the U.S. drug epidemic 
that started in the 1960s with the growing popularity of marijuana and, 
later, cocaine. Use of illegal drugs in the U.S. has fallen substantially 
below the extraordinarily high levels of the mid-1980s and now appears to 
have steadied, but hidden in the overall figures is a worrisome trend in 
the number of new users of illegal drugs in the past few years, such as an 
increase in new cocaine users from 500,000 in 1994 to 900,000 in 1998. In 
1999 an estimated 14.8 million Americans were current users of illegal 
drugs, and of these 3.6 million were drug-dependent.

The decline in overall use occurred for several reasons, including the 
skittishness of affluent cocaine users, who were made wary by negative 
media stories. The drop in the number of people in the 18-to-25 age group, 
in which drug use is greatest, was probably also a factor, and prevention 
initiatives by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, headed by Gen. 
Barry McCaffrey, may have had some beneficial effect. The decrease in 
illegal drug use in the 1980s and early 1990s was part of a broad trend 
among Americans to use less psychoactive substances of any kind, including 
alcohol and tobacco.

Even with the decline, the U.S. way of dealing with illegal drugs is widely 
seen by experts outside the government as unjust, far too punitive and 
having the potential for involving the country in risky foreign 
interventions. The system has survived for so many years because the public 
supports it and has not focused on the defects. Surveys show that most 
Americans favor the system, despite calls by several national figures for 
drug legalization, and there is little evidence that support is softening.
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MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens