Health Care and the War on Drugs

Published February 1, 2002

“Don’t you know there’s a war on?”

So ran one of the more popular admonitions of World War II. It meant, in effect, “What you’re doing ain’t exactly contributing to the effort, so you best mend your ways.”

The principle applies today. It’s time for this country to mend a number of its ways that no longer contribute (if ever they did) to the common defense and general welfare. Among them: the so-called war on drugs.

Time to call it off. We favor decriminalizing drug possession and use, starting with marijuana. But before we explain why, let’s review how these items got criminalized in the first place.

One Element of the Nanny State

A century ago, all drugs were legal . . . and the resulting human wreckage littered the landscape. A generation of Civil War veterans was addicted to morphine; countless middle-class ladies dosed away their unhappiness with laudanum (an opium derivative); Coca Cola was laced with cocaine; and an unregulated patent medicine industry used addictive substances to “treat” everything from impotence to flatulence.

According to Philip Gold, cultural historian and senior fellow at Seattle’s Discovery Institute, “Progressive Era reformers allied with the emerging medical profession and the AMA to attack the problem, both using the issue to advance their own larger agendas.”

Reformers seeking to create what’s now known as the “nanny state” got drug abuse added to their list of public health concerns. Doctors reined-in the patent medicine industry and garnered a monopoly on the prescribing of drugs. By the 1930s, it was illegal to possess any number of “controlled substances” without a doctor’s OK.

For and Against Legalization

The issue resurfaced in the 1960s, and the positions of both sides froze into their pre-September 11th, patently unpersuasive forms.

Arguments in favor of legalization ranged from “it’s my body and I’ll wreck it if I choose” (and who pays your insurance?) to the more common-sense notion that criminalizing drugs turns users into criminals, both by non-violent personal use and by the often-violent crimes users commit to pay for their habits.

Arguments against legalization generally drew on the basic nanny-state mentality: “Everything good should be a right; everything bad should be a crime.” Any number of religious objections to “defiling the temple that is the human body” also came into play.

Also popular was the argument that marijuana use leads to harder drugs, the result of some fun with numbers. While 90 percent of hard drug users may have started on marijuana, that doesn’t mean 90 percent of marijuana users move on to harder drugs. “When war is declared, the truth is the first casualty.” (Arthur Ponsonby)

Only occasionally did people bother to ask whether the “war” on drugs was working, and at what cost.

Gary Becker, a Nobel laureate in economics, has. In a September 2001 Business Week article, he noted the United States now spends $40 billion a year fighting the “war on drugs.” Drug offenders, from kingpins to yuppies to derelicts, account for 30 percent of all inmates in the burgeoning prison population.

The Libertarian Party, in a November 30, 2001 news release, added that in 2000 alone, police arrested 734,498 people for marijuana violations (up from 704,812 the year before). Of these, nearly 90 percent were charged only with possession.

Dr. Charles Tannock, a British psychiatrist and member of the European Parliament, wrote in the November 21, 2001 edition of Wall Street Journal Europe that “the toxicity of the drug itself [marijuana] is probably smaller than that of aspirin, in terms of lethal dose.” Marijuana, unlike heroin, is not physically addicting.

Of course, advocating legalization is not the same as encouraging use. One can, for example, support keeping sky diving and cigarette smoking legal without encouraging people to do them. In fact, we discourage our patients and readers from smoking cigarettes; in our opinion, the health risks exceed the benefits. But we certainly don’t propose outlawing smoking.

After September 11

It’s time for Americans to recognize that today’s international drug smugglers have little in common with yesterday’s Al Capone. Capone and his contemporaries were violent, dangerous thugs. Today’s drug smugglers are basically in it for the money.

Drug trafficking funds any number of terrorist organizations. Every American who buys illegal drugs, directly or indirectly, gives aid and comfort to this nation’s enemies.

Law enforcement officials have far more important things to do than fill the nation’s jails and courts with petty drug offenders. And it’s not just that the resources are needed to track down terrorists. Since September 11, many cities have seen an upsurge in major crimes committed by people who know that, with so many police off doing homeland security work, their chances for a successful murder, burglary, or rape are greatly enhanced.

Nancy Reagan popularized the “Just say No” approach to drug use. It’s still valid, but we would add, “Don’t you know there’s a war on?”

It’s time we admit we are in World War III: against 60 countries and thousands of enemies within our midst. Our drug war contributes nothing to that far more important cause.

Dr. Michael Arnold Glueck writes extensively on medical and legal reform issues. Dr. Robert J. Cihak is the immediate past president of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS).