Drug War Myths


Randall G. Shelden


The drug war rages on seemingly without end.  Part of the reason for this unending war is the continual propaganda used by the “drug warriors” such as the Drug Enforcement Administration and the office of the Drug Czar.  Space does not permit a complete rundown of all the myths and distortions so I will highlight five of the most common.


1.         Marijuana is a “gateway” drug.


            This is one of the most common, often propagated by law enforcement officials who should have the facts easily at their disposal, but apparently refuse to believe them.  Numerous studies have shown that the majority of those who use marijuana do not in fact “progress” to harder drugs.  Most people who have this belief base it upon confusion between cause and effect.  Since most of those who use the hard drugs (e.g., cocaine, heroin) at one time also used marijuana, it is easy to believe that the latter caused the former.  The fact is that about 76 million have tried pot at least once, but only about 8 million have ever tried cocaine or heroin.  If pot let to the harder drugs, then you would have about 76 million who have tried the harder drugs.  Some studies have shown that the two drugs that most often precede marijuana are tobacco and alcohol, so that if anything, these are your true “gateway” drugs.


2.         If drugs were legalized there would be an explosion of drug use.


            This is probably one of the most common cited reasons against legalization or even decriminalization.  Studies of states that have decriminalized certain drugs show no huge upsurge in drug use. Similarly, countries that have reduced penalties or legalized certain drugs show no increases in usage. (A good reference is: Drug War Crimes by Jeffrey Miron.)


3.         Needle exchange programs lead to increased use of drugs.


            This is similar to myth number two and is absolutely false. The US Surgeon General and the US Secretary of Health and Human Services both have refuted this argument, as have several studies, such as one of needle exchange in Canada. (Here’s a good source: http://www.mapinc.org/newscsdp/v98/n258/a05.html).


4.         Current drug policy protects American youth.


            This is really a horrible myth!  The fact is that the drug war has ruined the lives of thousands of young people because of high arrest rates, especially targeting minority youth, saddling them with criminal records and preventing them from leading useful lives.  Many youths with drug problems are afraid to seek medical care because of the fear of being arrested.  Probably the most negative result is the fact that many kids (especially minorities) are growing up with a parent in prison.  Currently at least 2 million children have a parent in jail or prison and many of these are for drug arrests.  The drug war has failed to keep drugs away from children and has presented contradictory information about the dangers of drugs.  The most common program – DARE – has been a miserable failure, yet continues to receive huge federal dollars.  Incidentally, data from hospital emergency rooms reveal that the highest rate of drug overdoses is among those over 40.


5.         Illegal drug use is a “scourge” against the nation.


            The immortal words of Bush, Sr. among others, continue to distort the harms of illegal drugs and ignore the devastation of legal drugs.  An estimated 435,000 Americans and about 5 million around the world die from tobacco use each year, while alcohol causes between 85,000 and 100,000 deaths in America, and about 32,000 die because of adverse reactions to prescription drugs. These rates pale compared to about 17,000 who die from illegal drugs (and zero from pot).  In fact, given the huge expenditures (about $50 billion last year), the corruption within the criminal justice system, the excessively high rates of incarceration, one could more accurately say that the drug war is the   “scourge” against the nation.


Some people will argue that I am in favor of drug use, which is not true.  I have heard people tell horror stories about someone close to them “strung out on drugs” (including pot).  I always say this: while it is true that drug abuse is a problem, it should be dealt with as a public health problem, not a law enforcement problem.  Our history clearly shows the horrible consequences (e.g., corruption among the police, extremely harsh penalties for minor offenses, and a drain on public resources) that come when you use the criminal law in this manner.


 © 2006, Randall G. Shelden. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.