Pubdate: Mon, 21 Apr 2008
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Section: A
Copyright: 2008 Los Angeles Times
Authors: Jacob Sullum and Charles Stimson



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What's the difference between drug legalization and 
decriminalization? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each? 
All week, Reason magazine's Jacob Sullum and attorney Charles 'Cully' Stimson

Today, Sullum and Stimson begin their Dust-Up by comparing drug 
decriminalization and legalization. Later in the week, they'll 
discuss drug-related violence, federal raids of marijuana 
dispensaries and more.

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By Jacob Sullum

The main disadvantage of "drug legalization" is the implication that 
the natural course of things, the default position, is for the 
government to dictate which substances people may put into their 
bodies. In 1933, when Americans were once again free to manufacture, 
buy and sell alcoholic beverages, people did not say that alcohol had 
been "legalized"; they said that Prohibition, an invasive, disastrous 
attempt to get between people and their intoxicants, had been repealed.

Americans understood the problems associated with alcohol abuse, but 
they also understood the problems associated with Prohibition, which 
included violence, organized crime, official corruption, the erosion 
of civil liberties, disrespect for the law, and injuries and deaths 
caused by tainted black-market booze. They decided that these 
unintended side effects far outweighed whatever harm Prohibition 
prevented by discouraging drinking. The same sort of analysis today 
would show that the harm caused by drug prohibition far outweighs the 
harm it prevents, even without taking into account the value to each 
individual of being sovereign over his own body and mind.

The problem is that our current prohibition has been in place for so 
long -- more than 90 years, compared with the 13 that the national 
alcohol ban lasted -- that people have trouble distinguishing between 
the costs of drug use and the costs of drug prohibition. Hence, they 
talk about "drug-related violence" when they should be talking about 
"prohibition-related violence"; they treat deaths caused by the 
unpredictable purity of black-market intoxicants as an inevitable 
consequence of drug use; they do not pause to consider why heroin 
addicts steal to support their habits much more often than alcoholics 
do; and they speak of drug users subsidizing terrorism, when in fact 
it's the government that subsidizes terrorism through the 
price-support program known as the war on drugs.

"Decriminalization" does not address any of these problems. As it's 
generally understood in this country, decriminalization amounts to 
treating users leniently while continuing to arrest, prosecute and 
imprison producers and sellers. In the states that have 
"decriminalized" marijuana, for example, possession of small 
quantities for personal use is generally a citable offense punishable 
by a modest fine. That policy is certainly an improvement over 
arresting pot smokers and putting them in jail, but it leaves the 
black market, with all its attendant problems, in place. What we call 
decriminalization is not even as tolerant a policy as the U.S. had 
during alcohol prohibition, when mere possession and consumption of 
alcoholic beverages, as opposed to manufacture and distribution, were 
not subject to punishment at all.

I also have a problem with the moral justification for 
decriminalizing drug use while continuing to imprison people for drug 
sales. If drug use is the evil the government is trying to prevent, 
why go easy on those who commit the offense but throw the book at 
those who merely assist them? Isn't that like punishing someone who 
sells a gun to a murderer more severely than the murderer himself? 
This inconsistency in the treatment of sellers versus buyers, which 
is widely practiced and supported by drug warriors, is a clue to the 
fact that the government is trying to prohibit something it has no 
business prohibiting.

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Jacob Sullum, a senior editor at Reason magazine and a nationally 
syndicated columnist, is the author of "Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use."

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By Charles "Cully" Stimson


Two points: First, there is no difference between decriminalization 
and legalization. Second, whichever term you want to use, it's a bad idea.

Heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana are illegal because 
they are dangerous, addictive, destructive drugs that ruin lives. You 
cannot seriously argue that there is no difference between a person 
who has a glass of wine with dinner and a person who uses heroin, 
coke, meth or marijuana everyday. The wine drinker is, arguably, 
improving his health -- if you believe the current medical literature 
- -- but the drug addict is destroying his mind. That affects all of us.

Certain laws are necessary for the public good. Keeping dangerous 
narcotics illegal is one of them. It is no secret that most criminals 
test positive for illegal drugs when they are arrested. These drugs 
alter the mind and carry long-term negative consequences. Defense 
attorneys, prosecutors, police officers and judges are not surprised 
to see the child abuser or domestic violence defendant test positive 
for coke or meth. Why? Because these drugs contribute to and cause 
erratic, volatile behavior; the scientific literature is clear on 
that. So while you say these people are simply exercising their 
"sovereignty," their criminal behavior, often caused by drug abuse, 
hurts everyone.

An example: I have defended Navy sailors who were charged with 
criminal drug offenses. These men didn't just hurt themselves; they 
put their fellow sailors' lives in danger, even when they were 
"sober," because of the long-term effects of these drugs on their 
minds and their performance.

And there is more to the story: When addicts are on a naval vessel, 
it weakens our national defense and makes all of us less safe. 
Imagine that across our economy: school bus drivers, police officers, 
machinery operators and so on. Drug legalization would only increase 
the risk that drug users, even during the times when they are sober, 
will act erratically or inattentively because their drug use has 
warped their minds and dulled their abilities. Implementing your 
philosophical theory of radical autonomy, Jacob, would have 
disastrous unintended consequences.

 From 1982 to 1992, illegal drug use by young adults dropped more 
than 50%. Why? In 1982, President Reagan rolled out his national drug 
strategy. It consisted of five components: international cooperation, 
research, strengthened law enforcement, treatment and rehabilitation, 
and prevention and education. Difficult problems like the scourge of 
illegal drugs require a comprehensive approach, not a hands-off one 
that's simplistic. Why try a dangerous alternative when we know what works?

Jacob, you are right that drug laws are enforced unevenly, but that 
does not mean that we should repeal all drug laws. All criminal laws 
(driving under the influence, rape, fraud and so on) are enforced 
unevenly across the states. Just because a convicted rapist in one 
state serves six years and a rapist in another is not even charged or 
gets probation does not mean we should repeal all rape laws.

And finally, there is the issue of morality, which you artfully 
sidestep. As a society, we tolerate certain vices. But there comes a 
point where, based on our collective experience, we draw the line. 
People who use illegal drugs are more likely to commit crimes, have 
children out of wedlock, be depressed, become mentally unstable and 
be less productive members of society. A moral and just society 
cannot encourage this type of behavior.

A free and healthy society requires as much freedom from government 
intervention as possible. It should create conditions under which 
members of society can reach their potential. Keeping dangerous drugs 
illegal is a reasonable, necessary and common-sense response to a 
serious problem.

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Charles "Cully" Stimson was a local, state and federal prosecutor, a 
military prosecutor and defense attorney, and Deputy Assistant 
Secretary of Defense. Currently, he is a senior legal fellow at The 
Heritage Foundation. 
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