White House drug policy director Barry McCaffrey [op-ed, June 29] attempts to bury all drug policy reform underneath a "legalization" epitaph. He fails, however, to dispose of the need to change course in the war on drugs. McCaffrey pointed out that three-quarters of the public oppose drug legalization, but he did not mention that 78 percent regard the current policy as a failure.
As federal policy has grown to a record $18 billion annual budget, the movement to reform the policy has gained strength and visibility. Reform is far broader than legalization -- a policy that would move drugs into a regulated market with controls on who can buy and where people can use, like the policy for alcohol. Other ideas span a range of possibilities, including allowing doctors to prescribe drugs to patients and addicts or removing criminal penalties for minor drug possession offenses.
McCaffrey is not just against legalization, he is opposed to any policy that undermines the federal prohibition of drugs, which means any policy that contracts the volatile black market. Although his position is secure inside the Beltway, the picture is changing elsewhere in the country.
Since 1996 six states have approved initiatives allowing doctors to determine whether marijuana can be used as a medicine. (Initiatives appeared on the ballots in Colorado and the District of Columbia, but the official counts have been blocked, although exit polls indicate both passed.) The success of these initiatives has led both houses of Congress to hold hearings investigating whether the medical marijuana initiatives were actually fronts for legalization.
Even if a legalization cabal existed behind the initiatives, it is hard to conceive how it would trick voters into endorsing legalization. The initiative revolution means that the voters are starting to move ahead of the federal government, saying that it is possible to go too far in the war on drugs.
McCaffrey responds with two key assertions: (1) Drugs pose an unacceptable risk to the health of a user, and (2) drugs cause "a disproportionate percentage" of crime. While both claims have a kernel of truth, they are both distortions of reality.
It is true that, in McCaffrey's words, "drugs themselves harm users." However, McCaffrey is separating cocaine, heroin and marijuana from alcohol and nicotine, which also pose risks. The separation is a legal fiction, not a pharmacological distinction. The 1970 Controlled Substances Act, the basis for today's drug classifications, schedules illegal drugs and medicines but does not mention alcohol and nicotine. That does not stop legal drugs from being implicated in nearly half a million deaths per year. A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that prescription drugs, when properly administered, cause more than 100,000 deaths per year. McCaffrey's office says that illegal drugs are responsible for 14,000 deaths annually.
In any case, a comparison between legal and illegal drugs is unfair because street drugs are available only in their most potent forms. Dealers do not offer coca or opium teas.
McCaffrey also alluded to a causal relationship between illegal drugs and crime when he wrote that "drug-dependent individuals are responsible for a disproportionate percentage of . . . violent and income-generating crimes such as robbery, burglary or theft." McCaffrey adds that "drugs were criminalized because they are harmful; they are not harmful because they were criminalized."
Not quite. During the advent of crack cocaine in the latter half of the 1980s, researchers in New York City conducted a unique study. The researchers defined three types of drug-related homicides: those caused by the use of drugs, those caused by trying to acquire money to buy drugs and those caused by drug dealers settling internal disputes and fighting over turf. In 1988, just over half of the murders in the city were "drug-related." But once the researchers examined the circumstances of the murders, they discovered that the clear majority, 74 percent, were results of the drug trade, not drug use (14 percent) or the need to get money for drugs (4 percent).
Prohibition's effect on U.S. homicide rates becomes clear when charted over the course of the century. The high point occurs at the end of alcohol prohibition in 1933 with 10 homicides per 100,000. After a long decline, the rates climb back up so that the 1980s hover just under the 1933 peak.
Whether legalizers or not, many reformers believe that U.S. drug policy must be reexamined as an unlawful expansion of federal power. McCaffrey's entire argument turns on whether people accept that it is a federal crime to have unhealthful or "bad" habits. There is a clear, bright line between using a drug and murdering or robbing. The harm or immorality is built into murder and robbery, which is not the case for drug use.
Ultimately, Americans must demand an investigation of the harms caused by our country's longest war. With a third of the country -- 77 million Americans -- having used an illegal drug at least once, we might discover that drug policy reform would save more wartime refugees than the liberation of Kosovo.
The writer is a senior analyst at the Drug Policy Foundation.