Winning the drug peace

Jan 172006
Authors: Jeremy Oehlert Iowa State Daily Iowa State U.

(U-WIRE) AMES, Iowa – Brent Shapiro, son of the powerful southern California attorney Robert Shapiro, was a college student. His life was tragically cut short, however, after ingesting a half tablet of the drug Ecstasy.

Shapiro's death sheds light on what is wrong with the drug war. The Ecstasy tablet that killed him was likely impure – and it's most likely the impurity is what killed him. It is hard to believe otherwise. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports nearly 25 million Ecstasy tablets are consumed every year in the United States. In 2001 those 25 million tablets resulted in just 76 deaths, only nine of which involved Ecstasy only.

Nine deaths out of 25 million pills makes any death from pure, unadulterated Ecstasy highly suspect. To put this in perspective, alcohol kills 50 out of every 100,000 users. To reach that magnitude, Ecstasy would have to kill over 12,000 people every year – 1,250 percent more than it does today.

This sobering fact begs the question, if most deaths from illicit drugs are due to adulterants that would not be in legal preparations, would it not be better to make drugs legal?

More often than not, the response to such a question is indignation. Drug warriors make many claims as to why illicit drugs should remain illegal, not the least of which conjure up images of a society mired in chaos and rampant addiction if drugs were made legal.

The latest, and perhaps most sophisticated, view on how society might best deal with the issue of drugs offers a refreshingly honest challenge to this type of thinking. It utilizes scientific knowledge of humans and society to develop a coherent strategy that maximizes individual liberty and at the same time ensures public security.

Harm reduction, as opposed to outright prohibition, is the concept fast becoming the world's answer to the problem of drugs. It acknowledges the fact that drugs have been used by all peoples, of every age, for a variety of purposes, both medicinal and recreational and that many drugs have a detrimental impact on the user.

The harm-reduction approach treats addiction as an illness rather than a crime and drugs in general as a public health issue, similar to the handling of alcohol and tobacco. Harm-reduction strategies break the back of the black market drug trade by offering drugs at lower prices than dealers can afford to stay in business. With pushers put out of business, addicts are forced to get their fix from medical professionals who are able to offer treatment options.

It is a win-win strategy in which gangs are denied a funding resource, addiction-generated prostitution and theft are eliminated and addicts are directed into a treatment environment.

In addition, it would allow our society to make peace with its inherent sense of civil liberty by allowing individuals who use substances, such as marijuana, in a responsible manner the legal right to do so.

Libertarian advocate Dr. Mary Ruwart, a former research pharmaceutical scientist, outlined many harm reduction strategies in her book, "Healing Our World: The Other Piece of the Puzzle," available for download at

Dr. Ruwart explains how the drug war actually causes more deaths than would occur with drug legalization.

She states that, "80 percent of drug overdose deaths (5,600 of 7,000 annually) are due to impurities and other factors that would not be present in legal preparations." She goes on to explain how 3,500 new HIV cases could be prevented every year if the U.S. government did not oppose clean needle programs.

Those in the harm-reduction movement do not want to live in a society of drug-crazed psychotics any more than the rest of us do. However, their novel approach to the drug war may be the answer we have been looking for regarding the issues of addiction and drug violence.

Drug prohibition has proven itself to be a failure. It did not work with alcohol during the 1920s and it does not work with other substances today. In a nation that has seen crime escalate, prisons swell to capacity and drug use remain largely unchanged since the inception of the drug war, it has become obvious that alternative measures must be taken to address the drug issue.

Instead of leading the drug war, our nation should be the first to declare the drug peace.

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