I’m sharing this because I initially wrote it over 20 years ago and it still a useful indictment of our failed War on Drugs today.
The Entheogen Review, Summer Solstice, 1995
The following essay first appeared in the March 13, 1995 issue of Legalese, the student publication of the University of Houston Law Center. It also ran in the University of Houston student publication the Daily Cougar. The author has generously made it available to the public — it may be photocopied and sent to officials and policy-makers concerned with decisions related to The War on Drugs.
Give Peace a Chance Ian Benouis
Millions of Americans are in jail or prison for the possession, distribution or use of an illegal substance, and those who use it and are not in jail are branded as criminals. The courts are overflowing with cases dealing with this problem. Organized crime has become more powerful and its activities are constantly in the news. Society’s view of the legal system has worsened. Crime and violence are at all-time highs. The federal government is spending enormous amounts of money to enforce the laws preventing the use of this substance, yet its use continues unabated. The authority of law enforcement to use whatever means necessary to combat this situation has increased dramatically leading to corruption, all at the expense of individual rights.
One might think that the situation above describes our country’s current War on Drugs. Actually the situation described took place over sixty years ago during our country’s first war on drugs-the prohibition of alcohol. It has been said, “those who do not learn the lessons of history are destined to repeat them.” Unfortunately for our country, we have not learned the lessons that Prohibition taught us, and we continue to blaze down the same road at full throttle.
What has the War on Drugs bestowed upon us? In America today the number of people imprisoned for drug offenses is the same as the number imprisoned for all crimes twenty years ago. We have the highest percentage of our population incarcerated of any nation on the planet, with drug offenders comprising 62% of the total prison population at the federal level. Incarcerating all drug offenders costs approximately $2 billion annually. In 1987 alone the United States spent $10 billion on drug enforcement. Violent crime has increased dramatically with the advent of new drug laws-32% between 1976 and 1985. Currently 80% of violent street crimes are drug-related. Making injectable drugs and their syringes illegal is responsible for at least 25% of the new cases of AIDS in the United States as addicts share dirty needles. The U.S. Constitution is being brushed aside as the government is able to seize property of persons suspected of having drugs without a warrant, probable cause or due process.
Some people believe that drugs are inherently evil and should never be legalized. However, even people who don’t necessarily believe that drugs have any benefit are beginning to realize that the current solution to the drug problem is worse than the problem itself. James P. Gray is a conservative superior court judge from Orange County, California and a leading proponent of drug legalization. He states, “I think that people are going to use these things whether they are legal or not. I think that has been demonstrated beyond anyone’s question.” Conservative columnist William F. Buckley says that if we legalize drugs, “the price would collapse, and there would be no profit in its sale.” The president of the American Bar Association George Bushnell Jr., former Secretary of State George Shultz, and a growing number of prominent Americans advocate the legalization of drugs because making them legal would remove the entire criminal element from the marketplace.
Legalizing drugs would cause the black market to disappear. Organized crime could not compete with the government and private industry in production, distribution and marketing. Removing the economic incentive would also eliminate the involvement of gangs and would no longer serve to encourage our nation’s youth to become drug dealers. This all would have a substantial effect on reducing violent crime in our country. The economic windfall would be tremendous. Not only would there be savings from the elimination of expenditures to finance drug enforcement, the reduction in the costs of incarceration and the recoupment of lost tax revenues from drug offenders who lose their jobs when they are put in jail, but the government could also reap enormous revenues from the taxation of these drugs.
Currently there are an estimated 20 to 40 million regular drug users in the United States. There are many more casual drug users. Some people fear that legalizing drugs would cause a dramatic rise in the number of people using them. The concern is that millions of law-abiding Americans are waiting patiently for the federal government to give the word so they can run to the nearest pharmacy or package store to obtain these substances. This perception is far from reality.
If a person really wants to do drugs, chances are he or she has already done so. We can look to other countries and history to see the results of legalization. In the Netherlands, where marijuana is legal, the level of use is below that in the United States. The Libertarian Party says that drug legalization would end the “forbidden fruit” appeal of illegal drugs. They point to the fact that after legalizing private use of marijuana in Alaska in 1975, a study done in 1982 showed that Alaskan students used marijuana a third less than the national average.
Drug education would result in users who were better informed of the possible negative consequences of their drug use, and who were better able to choose drugs that had less risk associated with them. Also, there would be fewer problems with overdoses and adulterants that result from illegal drug production. The government could ensure quality control, just as it does with prescription drugs. Fears of massive health problems are unfounded. According to a government study, 320,000 Americans die prematurely from tobacco and 200,000 die each year from alcohol. This is compared to 3000-4000 people who die every year from all illegal drug use combined. When the number of users of these substances is evaluated against the number of deaths, one discovers that nicotine is 30 times more likely to kill a person and alcohol is 10 times more likely to kill a person than illegal drugs.
Why do people want to use drugs in the first place? Answering this question will help to understand why humankind finds itself in this present predicament. Simply put the answer is that people want to get high. Most of us have heard of the term endorphins, but few actually know what it means. It stands for endogenous morphines. The brain manufactures codeine and morphine and has specific receptor sites for valium and THC. Is it a coincidence that the active ingredient in “magic” mushrooms is almost identical to the primary neurotransmitter serotonin, or that the active ingredient in peyote is almost identical to another neurotransmitter: dopamine? The most powerful psychedelic drug on the planet, DMT, is a neurotransmitter present in the brain. Interestingly enough, by this fact each citizen in our country is guilty of possessing a schedule I substance and has thereby committed a felony. By ingesting these foreign substances humans are attempting to replicate the actions of the brain. Wanting to use these drugs is a natural desire.
Although not learned in history, man has been using naturally-occurring substances for thousands of years for religious and healing purposes. There are cave paintings in Southern Algeria estimated to be 14,000 years old that clearly show the human use of psilocybin-containing mushrooms. The authors of the Rig Veda, the oldest known religious writing (at least 3000 years) devoted 120 hymns to praising the magical plant Soma. Indigenous peoples in North and South America have been continuously using peyote and mushrooms for at least the past three thousand years.
The religious use of these substances invokes some valid constitutional concerns. The U.S. Constitution prevents Congress from establishing laws that prohibit the free exercise of one’s religion. Presently, there is only one organization in the United States that is permitted the use of a drug in its religious rituals. The Native American Church uses peyote and can do so legally in every state, but the federal government places the stipulation that only Indians can use it. Non-Indians who desire to use peyote for religious purposes are denied the right to do so, which is guaranteed by the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
Separate from the benefits gained by the elimination of the problems resulting directly from the War on Drugs, there are inherent benefits in making drugs legal. Recently, the medical use of cannabis (marijuana) in chemotherapy patients has demonstrated that it can reduce nausea and increase appetite. It can also be used to relieve the symptoms of glaucoma. The cannabis plant is a valuable source of paper, fuel, fiber, and food. Psychedelic drugs have enormous medical potential in the fields of psychiatry as demonstrated by the use of LSD to treat alcoholism, the use of ibogaine to treat cocaine addiction, and the use of MDMA in psychotherapy. Although the government is doing its best not to advertise it, currently there are ongoing FDA approved medical studies in this country employing cannabis, psilocybin, ibogaine, DMT and MDMA. A study to use LSD has also been recently approved.
Whether one takes the position that drugs have no inherent value or the position that drugs can have some benefit to our society, it is difficult to argue that our country should continue to support the War on Drugs when this solution is the cause of the problem. Just as in the Vietnam War, those who supported our reasons for initially engaging in that conflict and those that were against our participation eventually came to the same conclusion: whatever our goals were, we weren’t achieving them and we needed to pull out before any more lives were lost. The casualties are mounting on all sides in the War on Drugs. It is time to tell the government to bring the troops home.
Ian Benouis is a first year law student who says, ”Just Say Know!”