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Magazine Highlights Drug Legalization Debate


February 1995

A series of articles in the Jan. 1995 World & I magazine examines facets of the debate about drug policy and drug legalization (Morton A. Kaplan, "The Drug Dilemma"; "Theodore Vallance, "A Most Complex Problem"; Ursula Schell, "The Effect of Drug Prohibition on the Medical Uses of Analgesics"; Samuel D. Uretsky "The British System of Narcotics Control"; World & I, Jan. 1995, p. 16-17, 356-407).

Editor and Publisher Morton A. Kaplan launches the special section with a radical editorial introduction -- his cure for the problems associated with drug abuse:

Anyone selling drugs in any amount should be subject to an automatic death penalty, with rapid implementation, unless that person helps trap someone higher in the hierarchy of the drug business. Furthermore, this escape clause should apply only to the first offense and to the subsequent activities directly related to it.

Such a solution may prove unworkable, unacceptable, or both, but if so we should not deceive ourselves that there are other, easier, quick fixes. We need to face the fact that this problem has no solution except a long-term moral one.

Ted Vallance, a retired Penn State professor and dean and a member of the National Drug Strategy Network, writes that not only are there are many conflicting solutions to the problems that surround the use of illicit drugs in society, there are many conflicting perceptions of what the "drug problem" is. As the title of his article so aptly points out, the problem of drugs is "A Most Complex Problem." Vallance is the author of Prohibition's Second Failure: The Quest for a Rational and Humane Drug Policy (Praeger, 1993; reviewed in NewsBriefs, Feb. 1993, p. 18).

He briefly examines common arguments about the drug problem: is it a crime problem, an economic problem, a public health problem, an international problem, a problem of failing collective morality, or a problem of individual liberties? How can well-meaning individuals concerned about the problems associated with drug abuse make realistic decisions in this flood of perspectives?

Any solution, Vallance writes, will involve some amount of compromise from any drug policy advocates. Harm reduction, for instance, offers solutions to some of the public health and crime problems associated with drug addiction. To adopt such a policy requires, however, concessions from moralists who believe there is no place for drugs in society and from libertarians who believe individuals should be able to make their own decisions unfettered by government regulation.

No policy will eliminate all of the problems associated with drugs, he writes. Those who consider drug policies must be flexible and be prepared to try new approaches.

In "The Effect of Drug Prohibition on the Medical Uses of Analgesics," Ursula Schell confronts one of the often ignored effects of drug prohibition policies -- the undertreatment of pain by medical professionals. Schell is a medical writer and editor from New York City. She argues that the abstinence-centered arguments of the popular debate about the "War On Drugs" and myths about drug use have caused physicians to worry about causing addiction in their patients and have prevented legislation that would have allowed patients to receive the treatment that they deserve. Patients in needless pain, she says, are prominent among those who suffer from drug prohibition.

Ironically, she writes that many of the indicators of drug addiction are strikingly similar to the symptoms of those who suffer from untreated pain. Drug prohibition causes cancer patients and others with chronic and severe pain to become unproductive, unhappy, and dehumanized.

In the finalessay of the series, "The British System of Narcotics Control," Samuel D. Uretsky argues that the often-lauded public health approach to drug policy in Great Britain also has many flaws. While the U.S. has adopted an approach that treats drug users as criminals, the British system treats drug addiction as a public health problem. Uretsky is assistant director of pharmacy at New York University Medical Center. He has written on the ethical and social issues of drugs and therapy.

He discusses various ways in which Great Britain has attempted to minimize the harm and corruption in regulating drug addiction and outlines the corruption, mistreatment, and black market opportunities associated with each.

Despite its problems, the British system is far better than that of the U.S. in areas such as preventing the spread of HIV by implementing needle exchange, he writes. Uretsky's article provides a useful case study for those who advocate a public health perspective to drug policy.

All of the articles in this section reflect the difficulty in devising a drug policy that addresses public concerns about drugs while accommodating in a humane and just way the forgotten victims of the War on Drugs. As the subtitle of the section points out, any drug policy involves "tough trade-offs."