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Great Idea for Ruining Kids

By Mortimer B. Zuckerman, Editor-in-Chief of U.S. News & World Report.


Published in U.S. News & World Report 68, February 24 1997.

The case for legalizing some drugs is seductive--and completely wrong

We are at a critical stage in the intermittent war on drugs. The plausible case for
allowing sick patients access to marijuana for the relief of pain, approved by
California and Arizona voters, has given impetus to those who would legalize drugs
altogether. They are dangerously wrong. If marijuana is to be approved for hospital
medicine, it is essential that general use be more rigorously curtailed. The narrow
window of legitimacy in medicine will be a menace if it becomes a wide-open door.

The argument of the legalizers is that America has lost the drug war. No matter how
many fast boats, helicopters, and antinarcotics teams we have, illegal drug use
continues and so does the criminal apparatus that supports the trade. If drugs were
legalized at low prices the gangs and peddlers would be out of business and the
killings and extortions would disappear. In a democracy, in short, it is a mistake to
criminalize the behavior of so many people. It promotes crime and weakens respect
for the rule of law.

There are many things amiss with this analysis. The drug war is not being lost. In
1979, some 25 million had tried drugs sometime in the preceding month. Today that
figure is 11 million. Why? Because of stricter drug laws, stronger societal
disapproval, and an increased awareness of the devastation drugs can produce.

Within the brighter general picture, there is an ominous trend. Drug use has
increased threefold among young teens in the past five years. They think they are
immune and can limit their involvement to soft drugs. That is a delusion--like trying to
be a little bit pregnant. The earlier and more frequently an adolescent uses a soft
drug the more likely it is he will go on to the hard drugs. This is surely an argument
for more vigilance, not less. Legalization would jeopardize a whole generation.

The legalizers respond that if drugs were legal, it would not increase the number of
addicts, since anyone who wants a drug can get it now. This does not square with
the facts. Drugs are not accessible at all. According to research, fewer than 50
percent of high school seniors and young adults under 22 believed that they could
obtain cocaine "fairly easily" or "very easily." Only 39 percent of the adult population
reported that they could get cocaine. So, after legalization, you could double or triple
the number of people who would have access to drugs and who would assuredly
use them--exactly the history of alcohol when Prohibition ended.

An even more absurd legalization argument is that young people could be excluded
from the frmarket for drugs. How could we do that when we have been unable to
keep legal drugs--tobacco and alcohol--out of the hands of children? Five million
children smoke and 12 million teens drink. Nor should we overlook that the stigma of
illegality has been important in discouraging kids from experimenting. In separate
studies, 60 percent to 70 percent of New Jersey and California students reported
that "fear of getting in trouble with the authorities was a major reason why they did
not use drugs." Another study found that "the greater the perceived likelihood of
apprehension and swift punishment for using marijuana, the less likely adolescents
are to smoke it."

Imagine the prospect that the number of drug users would approach the number of
alcohol abusers (more than 18 million) or tobacco addicts. One expert estimates that
legalizing cocaine would increase the number of addicts 10-fold to about 20 million. If
millions become addicted in a period when drugs are illegal, socially unacceptable,
and generally difficult to get, then millions more will surely become addicts when
drugs are legally and socially acceptable and easily obtainable.

We should always be suspicious of simple solutions to complex problems.


Legalization is such a bromide. The National Center on Addiction and Substance
Abuse at Columbia University had it right: "Drugs are not a threat to American
society because they are illegal; they are illegal because they are a threat to
American society." They should remain that way.