Commentary

Just Say Yes

In the war on drugs, the news is almost never good. A Canadian university criminologist recently released a report detailing a striking 222 percent increase in marijuana-growing operations in British Columbia between 1997 and 2000. Needless to say, it has officials on both sides of the border voicing concern. Drug Czar John Walters made known his displeasure with Canadian drug laws at the international meeting of the College on Problems of Drug Dependence, but Canadian marijuana should be the least of our worries when it comes to drugs in America.

The Partnership For a Drug-Free America recently reported that teenage use of the drug ecstasy has increased 71 percent since 1999. According to the National Institute for Drug Abuse-sponsored report, “Monitoring the Future,” in the mid-90s, after 15 years of stability, “there was a sudden uptick in use [of heroin by 8-12 graders], with rates jumping in one or two years to two or three times what they had been.” These cases are a simple demonstration of market forces — specifically, that children left to the temptation of an unregulated drug market all too often make foolish and deadly decisions. In the first instance, kids learned of a new and seemingly harmless drug, and in the second, a jump in purity made snorting heroin a (literally) less painful alternative to injection. In both cases, the black market made drugs widely available to children and left the final decision in their hands.

We claim to care most about protecting children, since they are not able to protect themselves. They are immature, impulsive, and almost impervious to the concept of death. Education, love, and firm guidance may steer them through this phase unharmed, but every parent worries because they know that kids do stupid things. And yet we have created a system of illicit-drug distribution which ultimately relies upon children to make life and death decisions. There is a better way to save our youth from drugs than to spend hundreds of billions of dollars in a futile war — a much better way. The answer is to end prohibition, while simultaneously bringing oversight and regulatory control to what is now a black market wide open to our youngest and most vulnerable.

Spending on the drug war has increased from $1.65 billion in 1982 to $17.7 billion in 1999, and drugs are easier to find than they were two decades ago. Even President Bush laments that “despite every effort, however, some individuals will become addicted to drugs.” According to a National Institute of Justice report, “despite their segregation from society and continuous close supervision, prison inmates still manage to obtain illicit drugs.” We cannot stop everyone from using drugs. We must accept this unfortunate fact. What we are obligated as adults to do, however, is to prevent children from using drugs.

Most people begin to experiment with drugs as minors — with marijuana, the age is just 16. The National Institute for Drug Abuse found that “the probability of long-run abstinence depends on age of first drug use,” referring to a study which found “[heroin] addicts who first used narcotics on a daily basis at age 25 or older had a 57 percent lower conditional relapse probability.” Drug use corrupts the minds and morality of children, introduces them to criminal behavior, and leads them into bad habits and addiction- all during crucial, formative years. Our best strategy against drug addiction is to prevent experimentation for as long as possible and then to discourage use among adults.

In a system where currently illegal drugs are manufactured and distributed in a regulated manner (legalized), the vast majority of users (those of legal age) would have access to the legal system. This means that a regulated system would greatly reduce the customer base for black-market drugs, and therefore greatly reduce the monetary incentive for criminals to sustain a black market.

The fact that this new, small, illegal customer base would consist mostly of children (as they are the only ones prohibited from drug use) would justify draconian punishment of anyone involved in the black market.

The combination of a drastically reduced monetary incentive and a vastly increased threat of punishment would reduce the black market to a manageable level for law enforcement. The tiny remnant of the formerly huge drug market would find itself the focus of what is now a comparatively huge law-enforcement apparatus.

By placing the majority of the customer base within a legal, regulated system, we can eliminate the prohibited customer base: children.

Many will immediately object to this claim on the basis of alcohol and cigarettes. There is no doubt that children have access to these drugs, but any teenager will also tell you that illicit drugs are even easier to buy. Alcohol and tobacco are normally obtained through the unsecured property of the adults around them, or through older siblings and friends who provide it to them. Society largely turns a blind eye toward under-age drinking and a disapproving frown toward smoking, but is there any doubt that these sources would disappear with the threat of years in jail?

There’s a lot that parents and communities do to keep children off drugs. But there is only so much that can be done. If a kid decides he wants to do drugs, he can find them. But this is certainly one decision that society should make for him. We can’t stop everyone from doing drugs, so why don’t we give up the utopian dream of a Drug Free America and at least make sure that our kids have a chance to mature before they face this temptation? There is one thing I’m certain of — our children should never have the chance to “just say no.”

Adam Schaeffer is a policy analyst with Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom.