Pubdate: Fri, 10 Aug 2012
Source: Philadelphia Daily News (PA)
Copyright: 2012 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.
Author: Stu Bykofsky


AS TERRIBLE as the tragedy of Garrett Reid's death was, the massive 
amount of play it received in the media and elsewhere - a moment of 
silence before a Phillies game for a nonplayer who died essentially 
of self-inflicted wounds? - yanked me back to a question I have 
grappled with over the years - whether it's time to decriminalize drug use.

Every time I get close to "yes," a case like Reid's pulls me back to 
"no." Easing up on hard drug enforcement will bring more misery, more 
addiction, more death.

With drugs being illegal, America records almost 40,000 drug deaths a 
year, according to the White House's Office of National Drug Control 
Policy. That's almost one dead American every 15 minutes.

It is less than half the deaths attributable to alcohol abuse and 
one-tenth laid at the doorstep of tobacco, I know that. You can say 
drug deaths are not a major problem. Tell that to the Reid family. 
Since I have written about this before, and listened to the squeals 
of outraged druggies, I must tread lightly.

The majority of American drug users are potheads, and I've heard 
persuasive arguments that pot is less addictive than booze and a lot 
less dangerous because some drunks turn mean and viol ent while most 
potheads turn hungry and sleepy.

Locally, District Attorney Seth Williams allows those arrested with a 
minimal amount of pot to go into the SAM (Small Amounts of Marijuana) 
program to avoid jail, freeing cells for dangerous criminals.

Pro-pot people say we've filled our jails with harmless potheads, but 
that's only partially true. The latest figures, for 2009, show that 
1. 7 million Americans were i n the hands of correction authorities 
for drug offenses, according to the Lancaster-based Common Sense for 
Drug Policy, an advocacy nonprofit. But the vast majority, 1.3 
million, are not in jail, but on probation or parole. That's a lot of 
convicted Americans, one result of the War on Drugs that most 
progressives feel is a failure.

Doug McVay, a board member of Common Sense for Drug Policy, sees 
failure in the approach we take - punishing users rather than 
educating them, a tool used against tobacco. Dropping punishment 
doesn't mean we'd soon be seeing a Marijuana Marlboro Man, says McVay.

Something perverse in our culture bestows "coolness" on kids using 
drugs, making a virtue out of polluting young brains with the risk of 
long-term mental damage and perhaps lifetime addiction.

My own common sense tells me that decriminalization will increase the 
number of addicts, and that will increase fatalities. It also will 
increase the need for more treatment facilities, a financial burden 
on straight and sober taxpayers.

Despite the War on Drugs, the number of Americans using illegal drugs 
is rising, reaching 22.6 million, or 8.9 percent of the population, 
according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services 
Administration. This suggests we haven't found the right weapons.

The overwhelming majority of the druggies are potheads, but decreases 
of about half have been recorded in cocaine and meth use in recent 
years. Maybe the punitive War on Drugs is having an effect? I can't be sure.

I can be sure victory in the War on Drugs will come only when we 
curtail demand. Among others, Mexico would be very happy, because 
American drug demand has led to almost 40,000 drug-war murders in the 
past five years.

It is possible to curtail demand. Within a generation, the percentage 
of Americans who smoke was cut by about half, partly by education, 
partly by smoking bans, partly by peer pressure.

We need a long-term, antidrug educational and PR campaign, maybe 
funded partly by seized drug assets. That's the carrot. While that is 
going on, we can cool it on potheads, but keep locking up hard drug 
dealers and even users. That's the stick.

It didn't save Garrett Reid, but it might save others.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom