Drug Minimization

by Douglas Dunn

Copyright (c) 1998 Douglas Dunn / Word Wizards communications -- all rights reserved

Each side in the "new" war on drugs, over whether to legalize or not, brings up serious issues that must be considered. But we humans tend to become polarized on one side or the other, instead of addressing the legitimate concerns of both sides. We must avoid the temptation of simplistic solutions from either extreme. Real answers must come from the middle ground -- not as compromise, but to address the full range of drug abuse problems and the criminal activity it causes.

Failure of Legalization
In the 1920's, during Prohibition, there was a significant reduction in alcohol consumption and alcohol-related death and illness. Even today, while we bemoan the death and destruction caused by cocaine or heroin abuse, death and illness from alcohol is more than ten times the total of all other drugs combined. This is just the direct suffering by users, and does not include higher health care costs and, despite the fact that alcohol use is legal, its costs to our judicial system for secondary illegal use such as drunk driving, disorderly behavior or family violence. Perhaps if Prohibition had been implemented using more innovative strategies, we could have enjoyed its benefits without suffering its devastating consequences.

Failure of Prohibition
But Prohibition was a failure, increasing crime and social upheaval. When we tell people they can't have something they want, they will go to any lengths to get it. While prohibition reduces usage among the law-abiding majority, those compelled to use it will not be deterred. Because the black market drives up prices beyond what poor, desperate addicts can afford, and increases profits for dealers willing to assume great risk for great riches, there is an increase in property crimes such as theft and burglary by users, and crimes of violence and intimidation by suppliers. The general public pays a hidden tax, randomly imposed in the form of crime losses, along with open taxes for increased law enforcement and judicial activity.

The Middle-Ground: Drug Minimization
We must find a middle ground between legalization and prohibition. I propose a strategy of "drug minimization." This policy recognizes the inherent damage caused by certain destructive vices, and incorporates the authority of the state to declare them contrary to the public interest, restricting access without an outright ban on usage, and concentrating efforts to reduce usage through education, treatment, rehabilitation and recovery services for everyone, not just those with money or insurance. Minimization targets supply and demand instead of use, yet does not grant these harmful products the status of being legal.

Minimization incorporates free market incentives against use and removes profits from sellers. Pricing, delivery and taxation could be manipulated to eliminate sellers' profits and create lower costs to users, so they don't have to rob people to finance their habits. Advertising could be prohibited for vices, while buyers are still permit access to what they are going to get anyway.

Packaging for such products could include information about treatment programs. While addicts might just ignore these most of the time, the information would be ready when the addict cried out for help. Minimization requires a commitment to rehabilitation services for all users when they are ready, without waiting lists. Dollars spent on prevention are cheaper than dollars spent for a cure. Treatment centers cost less than jails, and eliminate the "hidden tax" paid by crime victims. Substance abuse must be treated as a medical and social problem, not a criminal-justice problem.

With dealers driven out of the market by a lack of profits, and addicts receiving information about free, available treatment every time they use, we could target both supply and demand; prevention rather than cure.

In addition to re-classifying the status of currently-illegal drugs, minimization strategies could also be applied to other vices, including tobacco and alcohol products (preferably all alcohol products, but at least those above a designated level of alcohol content). Such products could continue to be marketed, but advertising and conditions of sale could be restricted while information and resources could be directed toward voluntary prevention and increased access to treatment and cure. And, as noted by Robert Matano of Laguna Niguel in his correspondence to Governor Gary Johnson of New Mexico, bringing the distribution of drugs out into the open would expose distributors to the same kind of legal accountability if their marketing, promotional efforts or methods of distribution fail to comply with practices of law and adequate disclosure to consumers in the same way that lawsuits are now holding tobacco companies liable for intentional deceit in their marketing practices.

For those who are uncomfortable with the idea of equating a cigarette or glass of wine with crack cocaine, minimization strategies could recognize differing classes of vices. Perhaps beer, wine and cigarettes would be in a low class, with mild regulation (including prohibitions against advertising -- sorry, Joe Camel), while hard liquor and marijuana would be in a medium-grade class, and the worst street drugs would be in a higher classes with the toughest controls. The same concept could even be adapted for and extended to behavioral vices, such as prostitution and gambling.

Who will oppose this proposal?
a) Those who, living in a state of perpetual denial, refuse to acknowledge the severe destructive consequences of drugs and alcohol and seek to make them fully legal and unregulated;
b) well-intentioned but simplistic idealists who think the only way to combat society's ills is to pass more laws, and seek to continue the current failure of outright illegalization; and,
c) the merchants of death (illegal street pushers as well as legal sellers from the alcohol and tobacco industries) who gain tremendous profits from the status quo.

We must not remain paralyzed by all-or-nothing thinking. We must bring the community together with middle-ground solutions, based on free-market incentives and strategies, which address the problems of drug-related crime which the pro-legalization camp is concerned about, and also afford the best opportunity for actually reducing usage, which is what those against legalization are concerned about. We must avoid the failures of either extreme but build on the valid points made by each. A comprehensive approach to drug minimization is a solid solution, rooted in sanity and the middle-ground.

Copyright (c) 1998 Douglas Dunn / Word Wizards communications

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