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CASA Debates Legalization in First White Paper


November 1995

The first White Paper to be released by the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University outlines the problems and the gaps in drug legalization and decriminalization proposals (Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, "Legalization: Panacea or Pandora's Box?" September 1995).

Dr. Herbert Kleber, CASA Executive Vice President and Medical Director, and Joseph A. Califano, Jr., CASA Chairman and President, are the paper's main authors. CASA is a think tank that studies substance abuse problems and drug treatment and prevention programs.

The paper states that legalization would create a "pediatric pandemic in the United States." "Drugs like heroin and cocaine are not dangerous because they are illegal, they are illegal because they are dangerous," the report says. "Legalization is a policy of despair, one that would write off millions of our citizens and lead to a terrible game of Russian roulette, particularly for children."

Although legalization is not the answer to the nation's drug problems, current drug policies do not give enough attention to drug and prevention programs, the report finds. The remainder of the report is organized around problems with legalization proposals:

Legalization will increase the number of drug addicts. Legalization would make drugs more available to children and adults. Surveys show that under the current system, drugs are relatively inaccessible. Legalization would decrease the public's perception of the risks and dangers of drug use. Economic theory dictates that legalization would decrease the price for drugs, which would increase drug use. The report cites the history of the crack epidemic to illustrate that marketing low-priced doses increases use. Heavy taxes on legal drugs would only create a black market for the drugs, complete with the associated crime and violence. Problems associated with legal drugs forewarn the problems of legalizing now-illegal drugs. Legalization would increase the number of marijuana, cocaine, and heroin addicts to a degree that they will equal current numbers of cigarette smokers and alcoholics.

Legalization would lead to more children using drugs. Children now have ready access to alcohol and tobacco products, showing that it is impossible to keep legal drugs out of the hands of children. Even if drug sales were highly restricted, the "forbidden fruit" situation would continue. The "stigma of illegality" is needed to supplement anti-drug messages and prevention programs.

Legalization would increase the number of hard-core addicts. Surveys show that hard core drug use fluctuates proportionally to availability, price, and stigma associated with use. Street-level busts keep down the number of hard-core addicts.

Legalization would increase drug-related problems and costs. Although legalization would produce a momentary decrease in the prison population as drug offenders are released, the long-term costs would be enormous. Over time, legalization would cause greater health, prison, workplace, and other social costs.

Legalization would increase crime. Drug-related violence is not necessarily related to the drug trade. Legalization might decrease drug trade and economic violence, but it would increase violence committed by those under the influence of drugs.

Our current drug law situation is not akin to alcohol Prohibition. Prohibition involved decriminalization of personal possession and consumption of alcohol. Sales of alcohol were outlawed. By the early 1930s, the public did not support Prohibition, but today the majority of the American public is set against illegal drug use. Alcohol Prohibition did not directly increase crime and did decrease alcohol consumption and alcohol-relate costs.

The government has a responsibility to take action on the drug problem to prevent addiction, which is a form of enslavement. Addiction causes the addict to surrender freedom. It causes harm not only to the addict, but society at large.

The successes of European legalization experiments have been greatly overstated. Policies and experiments in the Netherlands, England, and Switzerland have increased the number of drug addicts and have escalated drug-related problems and costs.

[To obtain a copy of this report, send $5 to CASA, 152 West 57th Street, New York, NY 10019-3310, 212-841-5200, fax: 212-956-8020.]