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Legalizing Drugs Would Undo Years of Progress
Letter to the
Editor of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution
In a Viewpoints essay that first ran in The Economist, the writer says American drug policies have failed and advises us to "bring drugs within the law" by licensing sales as we license tobacco and alcohol sales. U.S. drug policies are the result of citizen pressure that originated a decade before Congress passed the first drug abuse act, and these policies have achieved significant reductions in drug use.
Based on prevalence rates in 1978, when most drug use peaked, 25 million more Americans would be using drugs today than if these policies had not been created. And based on prevalence rates in 1985, the year cocaine use peaked, we would have three times the number of cocaine users we have today. This can hardly be called failure.
The article states that marijuana use did not rise in the 11 states that decriminalized the drug between 1972 and 1978, an assertion that is difficult to support because few states were conducting drug use surveys then. National surveys, however, show that marijuana use escalated to unprecedented levels during that time: from 14 percent to 31 percent among children and adolescents, and from 48 percent to 68 percent among young adults.
Alarmed parent and community groups organized a massive prevention effort to reverse this escalation. They stopped decriminalization from spreading to other states and defeated a national decriminalization bill. They succeeded in getting laws passed to ban the sale of drug paraphernalia. They insisted that drug education materials reflect scientifically accurate information about the harmful effects of drugs. It has taken years of steady advocacy from community groups and national organizations and the creation of federal, state and local governmental policies and resources to shift attitudes about drug abuse. No one wants to see this shift undone by legalization.
No amount of governmental regulation would be able to effectively prevent manufacturers of newly legalized drugs from finding ways to advertise, market and increase consumption, as alcohol and tobacco manufacturers do despite bans on advertising in some media. Some 103 million Americans use alcohol regularly, and 55 million use tobacco.
The two industries spend roughly $ 4 billion a year to achieve these levels of use, in spite of all that is going on in the United States to moderate alcohol consumption and reduce smoking. In contrast, some 13 million Americans use illegal drugs. Once profits from legal marijuana, cocaine and other drugs are devoted to advertising and marketing, what will prevent the number of drug users from approaching the number of alcohol and tobacco users?
Finally, we know from nearly 20 years of annual surveys of high school students that perception of harm is linked to use: As more young people believe a drug is harmful, fewer use it. Legalization would reinforce the notion that drugs aren't harmful; otherwise, why would governments make them available?
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