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Debunking the Drug War By JOHN TIERNEY America has a serious drug problem, but it's not the "meth epidemic" getting so much publicity. It's the problem identified by William Bennett, the former national drug czar and gambler.
"Using drugs," he wrote, "is wrong not simply because drugs create medical problems; it is wrong because drugs destroy one's moral sense. People addicted to drugs neglect their duties."
This problem afflicts a small minority of the people who have tried methamphetamines, but most of the law-enforcement officials and politicians who lead the war against drugs. They're so consumed with drugs that they've lost sight of their duties.
Like addicts desperate for a high, they've declared meth the new crack, which was once called the new heroin (that title now belongs to OxyContin). With the help of the press, they're once again frightening the public with tales of a drug so seductive it instantly turns masses of upstanding citizens into addicts who ruin their health, their lives and their families.
Amphetamines can certainly do harm and are a fad in some places. But there's little evidence of a new national epidemic from patterns of drug arrests or drug use. The percentage of high school seniors using amphetamines has remained fairly constant in the past decade, and actually declined slightly the past two years.
Nor is meth diabolically addictive. If an addict is someone who has used a drug in the previous month (a commonly used, if overly broad, definition), then only 5 percent of Americans who have sampled meth would be called addicts, according to the federal government's National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
That figure is slightly higher than the addiction rate for people who have sampled heroin (3 percent), but it's lower than for crack (8 percent), painkillers (10 percent), marijuana (15 percent) or cigarettes (37 percent). Among people who have sampled alcohol, 60 percent had a drink the previous month, and 27 percent went on a binge (defined as five drinks on one occasion) during the month.
Drug warriors point to the dangers of home-cooked meth labs, which start fires and create toxic waste. But those labs and the burn victims are a result of the drug war itself.
Amphetamine pills were easily available, sold over the counter until the 1950's, then routinely prescribed by doctors to patients who wanted to lose weight or stay awake. It was only after the authorities cracked down in the 1970's that many people turned to home labs, criminal gangs and more dangerous ways of ingesting the drug.
It's the same pattern observed during Prohibition, when illicit stills would blow up, and there was a rise in deaths from alcohol poisoning. Far from instilling virtue in Americans, Prohibition caused them to switch from beer and wine to hard liquor. Overall consumption of alcohol might even have increased.
Today we tolerate alcohol, even though it causes far more harm than illegal drugs, because we realize a ban would be futile, create more problems than it cured and deprive too many people of something they value.
Amphetamines have benefits, too, which is why Air Force pilots are given them. "Most people took amphetamines responsibly when they were freely available," said Jacob Sullum, the author of "Saying Yes," a book debunking drug scares. "Like most drugs, their benefits outweigh the costs for most people. I'd rather be driving next to a truck driver on speed than a truck driver who's falling sleep."
Shutting down every meth lab in America wouldn't eliminate meth because most of it is imported, but the police and prosecutors have escalated their efforts anyway and inflicted more collateral damage.
In Georgia they're prosecuting dozens of Indian convenience-store clerks and managers for selling cold medicine and other legal products. As Kate Zernike reported in The Times, some of them spoke little English and seemed to have no idea the medicine was being used to make meth.
The prosecutors seem afflicted by the confused moral thinking that Mr. Bennett blames on narcotics. "Drugs," he wrote, "undermine the necessary virtues of a free society - autonomy, self-reliance and individual responsibility."
If you value individual responsibility, why send a hard-working clerk to jail for not divining that someone else might manufacture a drug? And why spend three decades repeating the errors of Prohibition for a drug that was never as dangerous as alcohol in the first place?
There are greedy, sadistic people that profit from the war on drugs. This includes everyone from enforcement to the politicians and industries. These people will continue to support the war on drugs no matter how much harm it does because they profit from the war on drugs and they don't care about the suffering they cause. To end the war on drugs we need to punish the people responsible for waging this war on harmless civilians.
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