Tuesday, July 8, 2008

By Ellen Ratner

Last week, the United Nation's World Health Organization released a study
showing the drug and tobacco habits of citizens in 17 countries. Over 50,000
people were interviewed for the study. Some interesting data emerged from
the study รข€“ some good news and some really bad news. First, the good news:
While Americans had the highest population percentage of people who had used
tobacco, (a whooping 74 percent), only 21 percent were still using tobacco.

Now the bad news: The United States topped the other 16 countries in usage
of marijuana and cocaine. Despite the interdiction efforts of the United
States government, which seized 41 metric tons of cocaine in 2007, it
remains a drug that is widely used. Sixteen percent of Americans have tried
it. The data on marijuana is staggering, with 42.2 percent of Americans
having tried it. There are also estimates that the citizens of the United
States spend $142 billion on illegal drugs.

We also have over 2 million people in jail or prison in our county, and a
quarter of them are there on a drug charge. Many more are there on other
charges, but many of those crimes had addiction to drugs as a strong factor
in their commission. Without taking into account the societal costs, such as
single parents raising children while one parent is incarcerated, as well as
the medical care costs of treating people in prisons, the costs of bed and
board for people charged with a drug offense is about $2 billion a year.

So, what do we get for all that illegal money being spent for drugs and more
being spent for law enforcement, incarceration and court costs? A lot of
employed lawyers and very little overall benefit. Our great war on drugs
simply does not work. Despite the lobbying and incredible advertising and
other investments by the tobacco companies, the percentage of Americans
smoking has diminished. It has been done without jail time and without tons
of costs. The reason it has diminished is that we have used social pressure
and education. Just like prohibition kept drinking a quiet killer, our drug
laws are taking legitimate points of intervention away from schools, doctors
and family members.

I am not suggesting that cocaine and marijuana be sold behind the drug store
counters to anyone over 21 who asks for it, but neither am I suggesting that
we continue to arrest people who are identified as users. We allow people to
use tobacco and alcohol but punish people who sell to minors. We have strict
laws for those that drink and drive, and we have interventions for people
who get caught drinking and driving As a society we do not want people
lighting up a joint at work or snorting a line of cocaine at their desks. We
would not tolerate someone who drinks alcohol in their coffee cup, nor do we
tolerate someone who smokes a cigarette in the next cubical. Obviously,
social pressure and good work rules have had an effect, so why not use those
exact same methods with what are now illegal drugs?

The only effective way to reduce drug usage is to clean out our jails and
prisons of users and decriminalize the use of many drugs. With the money
saved there could be a heck of an education and intervention campaign. It
might not work, but what we are doing now doesn't either. Why not give drug
decriminalization a chance? We can always go back to the courts and back to

Ellen Ratner is the White House correspondent and bureau chief for the Talk
Radio News service. She is also Washington bureau chief and political editor
for Talkers Magazine. In addition, Ratner is a news analyst at the Fox News


No comments: