Two Takes: Drugs Are a Major Social Problem, We Cannot Legalize Them

Drugs already cause too many problems in this country—legalization would be a disaster.

Los Angeles Police Department gang unit officers found a hidden interior compartment with money and narcotics belonging to the driver after stopping and searching a car on September 13, 2007 in the Rampart area of Los Angeles, California.

Lee P. Brown was the direc­tor of the White House Of­fice of National Drug Control Policy under President Bill Clinton from 1994 to 1997.

Illegal drugs continue to be a major problem in America. They will never be legalized, and they should not be.

Advocates of legalization argue that drug prohibition only makes things worse. They argue that crime, the spread of HIV, and violence are major consequences of drug prohibition. But these represent only part of the damage caused by drug use. Consider drug-exposed infants, drug-induced accidents, and loss of productivity and employment, not to mention the breakdown of families and the degeneration of drug-inflicted neighborhoods. These too are consequences of drugs.

Others argue that drugs affect only the user. This is wrong. No one familiar with alcohol abuse would suggest that alcoholism affects the user solely. And no one who works with drug addicts will tell you that their use of drugs has not affected others—usually family and friends.

Some argue that drug enforcement should be replaced by a policy of "harm reduction," which emphasizes decriminalization and medical treatment over law enforcement and interdiction. But people do not use drugs simply because they are illegal. Equally significant, effective enforcement reduces drug supply, increases price, lowers the number of users, and decreases hard-core drug use. There is an inverse relationship between the price of cocaine and the number of people seeking emergency room treatment.

Legalization advocates claim widespread support. But the fact is that there is no broad public or political outcry for the decriminalization of drugs.

Contrary to what the advocates of legalization say about the European models, decriminalization has not worked there. The Dutch policy of "responsible" drug use has resulted in thousands of foreigners going to the Netherlands to buy drugs. These users then commit crimes to support their habits and drain Dutch taxpayers to provide treatment for their addictions. The number of marijuana and heroin users has increased significantly.

The British experience of controlled distribution of heroin resulted in the doubling of the number of recorded new addicts every 16 months between 1960 and 1967. That experiment was ended.

A 1994 resolution opposing drug legalization in Europe that was signed by representatives of several European cities stated in part that "the answer does not lie in making harmful drugs more accessible, cheaper and socially acceptable. Attempts to do this have not proven successful."

Supply and demand. An effective drug policy must focus on reducing the demand for drugs through prevention, education, and treatment without overlooking enforcement and working with source countries. That was the policy that I developed while serving as the nation's "drug czar" under President Clinton. The formula is simple: no demand, no supply.

In 1988, the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control, chaired by Rep. Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat, held hearings on the possible legalization of drugs. The questions asked by Rangel then are equally relevant today: Which drugs would we legalize—heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, and PCP, as well as marijuana? What would we do with addicts? Would we support their habit for life or pay for their treatment? What would we do about those who are only experimenting? Would legalization contribute to their addiction? What would prevent a black market from emerging?

Because these and other questions cannot be answered to the satisfaction of the U.S. public and our lawmakers, America will never legalize drugs.

Legalization does not get to the problem's core. In seeking to satisfy the few, it subverts the best interests of all. In purporting to provide a quick, simple, costless cure for crime and violence, it fails to answer why more drug availability would not lead to more drug use and more devastating consequences.

We must, however, change our drug policy and view drug use as a public health problem, not just a problem for the criminal justice system.