Pubdate: Sun, 24 Jan 2016
Source: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (Little Rock, AR)
Copyright: 2016 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc.
Note: Accepts letters to the editor from Arkansas residents only
Author: Johann Hari, Los Angeles Times


Taboos about drugs are lying shattered across the U.S., like broken 
debris after a party. But even as some states have begun to 
decriminalize or legalize marijuana, there is an argument that is 
making some Americans hesitate.

They ask: Aren't many drugs, even pot, much more potent today than 
they were in the 1960s when the boomers formed their views on drug 
use? Hasn't cannabis morphed into super skunk? Aren't people who used 
legal painkillers like OxyContin and Percocet sliding into heroin 
addiction, suggesting that legally accessible drugs are a slippery 
slope toward the abuse of harder drugs?

Here's the irony. Drugs are more potent today, and people are taking 
more powerful drugs-but that's largely because of the drug war, not despite it.

To grasp why, you need to understand a counter-intuitive phenomenon 
best explained by writer Mike Gray in his book Drug Crazy. Let's 
start in January 1920. The day before Prohibition went into effect, 
the most popular alcoholic drinks by far were beer and wine. Once 
alcohol was legalized again in December 1933, the most popular drinks 
by far were again beer and wine, as they remain today. But between 
those dates, beer and wine virtually vanished and the only alcoholic 
beverages available became hard spirits such as whiskey, vodka and moonshine.

So why would banning a drug change people's taste? It didn't. It just 
changed what they had access to.

Imagine if you had to smuggle all the booze to be consumed in your 
local bar next week in a wagon from the Mexican or Canadian border. 
If you filled the wagon with beer, you could serve maybe a few 
hundred drinks. But if you filled the same space with whiskey, you 
could serve thousands. When you are smuggling anything over distance, 
"you have to put the maximum bang in the smallest possible package," 
as Gray wrote. Bar-goers would prefer beer, but if all they can get 
is whiskey, plenty will drink that instead.

Gray points out that you can watch this dynamic any weekend if you go 
to the stands of any university football game. Students prefer beer, 
but most college stadiums don't allow or sell any alcohol. It's a 
zone of prohibition. So what do the students do? They smuggle in hard 
liquor in flasks.

The technical term for this-coined by the advocate for drug reform 
Richard Cowan-is "the iron law of prohibition." As crackdowns on a 
drug become more harsh, the milder forms of that drug disappear and 
the most extreme strains become most widely available.

So GOP presidential candidate Carly Fiorina was right when she said 
during the CNN Republican debate that "the marijuana that kids are 
smoking today is not the same as the marijuana that Jeb Bush smoked 
40 years ago." Today's pot is significantly richer in THC, much like 
hard spirits have a higher alcohol content than beer.

But using that fact as an argument against legalization misrepresents 
what is going on. Most cannabis smokers don't want to get totally 
baked on super skunk, any more than most social drinkers want to get 
smashed on Smirnoff. But the milder stuff isn't available because the 
market is prohibited.

The iron law is playing out to devastating effect with opiates. 
People who become addicted to OxyContin or Percocet want to continue 
using those drugs. Doctors, however, are required by law to stop 
prescribing these opiates if they suspect the patient is feeding an 
addiction, not treating physical pain. Yet when an addict tries to 
find his drug on the illegal market, Oxy or Percs are almost 
impossible to get. What is widely available, and cheaper, is a much 
stronger and completely outlawed opiate: heroin.

This isn't the intention of the drug warriors, any more than 
champions of prohibition intended to super-charge the market for 
moonshine. But it is the practical effect.

So if you want drugs to be as wildly potent as possible, sticking 
with the war on drugs is the way to go. But if you believe milder and 
less intoxicating drugs present less risk to us all, it's time-at 
last-to end prohibition.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom