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Jewish World Review Feb. 8, 2001 / 15 Shevat, 5761

Paul Campos

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Consumer Reports

War on drugs worse than drugs -- A MEMORABLE scene in Steven Soderbergh's film "Traffic" depicts a teenage girl's initiation into the world of cocaine by her prep school boyfriend. She inhales the fumes from a pipe, and almost instantly a look of rapture engulfs her face. A moment later tears of ecstasy well up in her eyes, as she surrenders herself to the seductions of the drug and the boy.

"Traffic" is both a fine film and a useful polemic in the war against the war on drugs. Yet this scene implicitly affirms a fiction that has played a key role in justifying this nation's insane drug policy. That fiction is that drugs are enormously powerful, life-transforming agents, which send their users off into a world of cosmic enlightenment and pleasure, or of soul-destroying degeneracy and despair.

In fact, drugs rarely do either of these things. The vast majority of people who have used illegal drugs at some point in their lives neither become addicts nor write a poem as good as "Kubla Khan" (which was the product of an opium dream), nor compose a song as memorable as "A Day in the Life."

And the reason for this is simple: Drugs are not or more precisely should not be - nearly as big a deal as those who celebrate them and demonize them treat them as being.

At some point in their lives, most adult Americans have intoxicated themselves with alcohol. Many people, when they are young, get a kick out of getting drunk. Most of them soon discover that getting drunk is an overrated experience, and that it is attended by significant disadvantages that become particularly clear to the votary of Dionysus when he finds himself puking in the shrubbery at 3 a.m.

Most of these people either stop drinking altogether, or they continue to drink, but learn to do so in moderation, which means that although they may sometimes enjoy a sensation of mild intoxication, they rarely or never get truly drunk.

A society that neither worships nor demonizes alcohol recognizes that alcohol is one of life's small but significant pleasures, and that for many people, drinking in moderation enhances health and well being. It also recognizes that a minority of those who drink are incapable of doing so without becoming alcoholics, and that this addiction can become an extremely destructive force.

Most illegal drugs are no different than alcohol or would be, if not for the additional problems created by their criminalization. This is the dirtiest little secret of the war on drugs. Ironically, those who demonize drugs do so in part because they have bought into the propaganda of the drug pusher. The pusher wants his buyers to believe that his product will change their lives, that it is every bit as potent as the anti-drug hysteria has led his potential customers to believe.

It isn't. Ultimately, a gram of cocaine is neither more nor less potent than a fifth of gin. Both will, for better or worse, leave most of those who indulge in them substantially unchanged. Both will put a destructive grip on some of those who come within their reach. Both have the potential to kill the foolish and unlucky (in this regard, it is worth repeating, the nation's most popular illegal drug, marijuana, is far less dangerous than a fifth of gin).

Making cocaine addicts into criminals is every bit as absurd a public policy as making alcoholics into criminals.

People use mind-altering substances for many reasons, good and bad. Drugs are no more likely to destroy a person's life than they are to lead to spiritual insight and artistic achievement, which is to say that occasionally they do have such effects - but I wouldn't bet a multibillion-dollar war on it.

Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado. Comment by clicking here.


01/31/01: Racial imbalance not always racist

© 2001, Paul Campos