I finished writing this about 15 minutes ago, for my Seminar in Composition final paper
. Node what you know
Now I just need to get started studying for that pesky Biology final which starts in two hours...
The American Drug Problem
According to the U.S. Department of Justice website, over two million people were in prison in 2001. One fifth of those people were incarcerated for drug crimes. American society today encourages politicians to be "tough on drugs," and some people would be proud of America's treatment of drug use. However, the American public is often ignorant of the reasons that certain drugs were originally made illegal, or the actual costs that these drugs pose to society as compared to the legal drugs. Because of the exaggerated beliefs concerning drugs, people are incarcerated who pose little to no harm to society, and already severe restrictions are tightened. The current drug classification system only reinforces these erroneous beliefs, and the first step to correcting the situation is to reclassify the drugs in our legal system to more accurately reflect their harm to society.
Drug use has not been an American concern for very long. Marijuana, cocaine, and opiates have been taken both as medications and as recreational drugs for much of American history. The first law written to ban any specific drug was an early San Francisco law that banned the smoking of opium. The rationale for the law was that "many women and young girls, as well as young men of respectable family, were being induced to visit the Chinese opium-smoking dens, where they were ruined morally and otherwise" (Brecher). Other methods of taking opium which were more commonly used by middle-class whites were not banned. Later, similar laws were enacted against cocaine because of the risk of "Cocainized Niggers" rampaging through white neighborhoods (Prohibition). The laws' involvement with drugs was incidental. The real targets of these laws were the minority groups who were seen as the main users of such drugs: Chinese immigrants and African Americans.
The first federal legislation that controlled drug use was the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. It created the Food and Drug Administration, which was charged with testing all publicly-sold drugs or medications. In addition, it restricted certain medications to be sold under a physician's prescription only, and required drugs to be labeled if they contained habit-forming ingredients (Avery). It was followed by the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914, which regulated the over-the-counter sale of narcotics and cocaine. These drugs were known to be addictive, and at the time, doctors could prescribe addictive drugs for addiction maintenance purposes. Doctors could still prescribe these drugs after the Harrison Act, and small amounts could still be sold over the counter (Oliver 25). Both the Pure Food and Drug and Harrison Narcotics Acts were originally regulation on certain drug sale, not a prohibition. At that point, no one had debated whether drug use was under the jurisdiction of governmental control.
The American cultural stance on drug use was changing rapidly, however. The temperance movement, which demanded government regulation of alcohol, was coming to a head. The women who had led the temperance movement were appalled at the behavior of men who abused the free availability of alcohol. While the temperance movement mostly focused on alcohol, the most widely abused drug, American culture began to look down upon all forms of addiction. During the same year that Congress amended the Constitution to prohibit alcohol, the Harrison Act was amended to ban narcotics unless a special tax was collected (Harrison). While the one dollar tax doesn't seem like much of a restriction, the requirements to get a tax stamp show the true intent of the Act. Now, doctors and dealers had to register with the government to prescribe or sell the narcotics. This means that any dealer who sold to a hospital for legitimate medical use would have to forfeit any "street" profits, as they would be refused a tax stamp for those purposes. While the Harrison Act never directly banned recreational drug use, it accomplished the same ends by mandating a tax that no governmental agent was willing to collect. By wording the law to make drug use a tax issue, governmental agencies bypassed all of the arguments about whether or not the government has the right to legislate what a person may put into their bodies.
After the Harrison Narcotics Act, new drug-based legislation popped up every few years, banning and "taxing" other drugs or creating new penalties for drug violations until the modern drug legislative system took form. Today drugs are divided up into three classes, relating to the maximum penalties that are given out for the drug in that category. Class A contains all of the opiates including heroin, cocaine and crack, ecstasy, LSD, and hallucinogenic mushrooms. Class B contains the amphetamines, barbiturates, marijuana, and codeine. Class C contains steroids and most abused prescription drugs (Misuse of Drugs Act). They are also divided into five "schedules," depending on the drug's incidence of abuse and medical necessity. Schedule 1 is for drugs with no acknowledged medical use, like marijuana, ecstasy, LSD, raw opium, and psilocybin. Schedules 2 through 5 contain drugs that are available through prescription, with decreasing levels of potential abuse. Schedule 2 is the largest schedule, containing heroin, cocaine, methadone, morphine, and other related drugs (Misuse of Drugs Act). Marijuana's medical validity is a hotly debated topic, and while some states have allowed the prescription of raw marijuana or derivatives, that does not apply on the federal level, which supersedes any state regulation. The Schedule and Class systems are meant to classify drugs in a way that separates the most harmful, most-abused drugs from the mostly-benign, medically necessary ones. Do they fulfill this goal?
Heroin is commonly known as one of the most dangerous drugs to take. There are between 75,000 and 100,000 habitual heroin users in the U.S. ("Heroin"). About 1% of the habitual users overdose every year ("FAQ"), which means that about 1,000 people die each year from heroin overdose. Cocaine and crack are also known as dangerous drugs, with about 2.3 million habitual users of cocaine, and 604,000 of crack. Cocaine abuse is associated with a lifetime risk of heart attack that is seven times that of non-users (NIDA Infofacts). Death from cocaine overdose was admitted to be rare in the mid-eighties (Cohen 64). Compare these to tobacco, an unscheduled and legal drug. Tobacco is considered by the CDC to be "as addictive as heroin or cocaine," probably because it has a higher incidence of repeated use than any other drug. Over 48 million people smoke tobacco cigarettes (Price). Almost 85% of all lung cancer cases are estimated to be related to smoking. Since about 160,000 people died from lung cancer in 2004, the estimated number of lung cancer deaths caused by smoking amounts to about 128,000. This figure leaves out other cancers caused by smoking, the incidence of other smoking-related disease, or any disease attributed to second-hand smoke. All of the hazards involved with tobacco use cause an estimated 430,000 deaths each year (Kavanagh). The number of people who die a year from smoking-related disease is about 1% of the people who smoke cigarettes. This is the same figure given for heroin-related deaths. Why is a 1% death rate so dangerous when it involves heroin, but acceptable when it's applied to tobacco? In addition, there is one prevalent drug with no record of related deaths: marijuana. Despite marijuana's widespread use, it has not caused one overdose (Cohen 160). However, one marijuana cigarette is theorized to have four times the lung-cancer causing tar than one tobacco cigarette. This means that, for a marijuana smoker to have the same lung-cancer risk as a pack-a-day smoker, he would have to smoke five marijuana cigarettes a day. The common rate of marijuana use, though, is five marijuana cigarettes a week (Oliver 30). Results from a series of animal tests have shown that a human weighing about 150 pounds would have to smoke 15 pounds of THC at once to cause death from overdose (Cohen 160). This drug has never caused a single recorded death, but shares a penalty for its posession and distribution similar to that of cocaine. Why?
Firstly, heroin, crack, and cocaine all have a death rate because of direct overdose. One single dose of any of those drugs can directly kill a person. This poses more of a threat to society than tobacco, the effects of which take a long time to emerge. However, alcohol can also kill in one sitting. People can and do die of direct alcohol overdose. There must be another factor at work. Indeed, heroin, opium, crack, cocaine, and marijuana have all been related in the public mindset to criminal behavior, delinquent youth, or unwanted races. From the first drug laws to the current classification scheme, drug legislation has focused on everything but the actual effects of the drug. Heroin is commonly thought of as an inner-city black drug, one which commands an addiction so severe that its users are forced to prostitute themselves or steal from others to get their "fix". Crack is envisioned as the drug of the homeless and desperate. Cocaine brings to mind wealthy drug-lords or degenerate rock stars, rolling up $50 bills to snort lines. Marijuana, hallucinogenic mushrooms, and LSD were powerful symbols of the generation gap in the 1960's, where the adults saw jobless "flower children" ignoring all responsibility in favor of lying around in the living room in a drugged stupor. These mental images are no more valid than the idea that black men who do cocaine will inevitably end up raping white women, or that the Chinese are trying to lure whites into ruin with opium. People need to see past this cultural bias against the use of certain drugs, and a good way to do that is to open the drug issue to debate. The issue of why and whether recreational drugs should be illegal was avoided by the Harrison Act, creating an environment prone to emotional instead of logical justification.
Rethinking the American classification of drugs is not a new idea. In 1971, members of the Royal College of Psychiatrists' Faculty of Substance Misuse were asked to rank the relative harmfulness of various drugs, this time including alcohol and tobacco. They cited heroin and cocaine as the most dangerous drugs, as well as methadone, amphetamines, barbiturates and alcohol. Tobacco was ranked above ecstasy and LSD, and marijuana was least dangerous (Misuse of Drugs Act). In making their assessment, the members of the Royal College of Psychiatrists used four criteria to judge their rankings of drugs: "risks of the drug itself: acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) toxicity; risks due to the route of use; extent to which the drug controls behavior (addictiveness or dependency); ease of stopping (the habitual use of the drug)" (Misuse of Drugs Act). By stating clearly what criteria they used to judge drugs' classifications, they eliminated the possibility that their cultural and personal biases influenced their decisions. The current American legal classification system needs to be reworked with a similar set of criteria, this time including all drugs, so that the irrational biases can be eliminated. From a perspective of the physical harmfulness of the legal drugs, the Royal College of Psychiatrists' classification makes a lot of sense. Tobacco directly contributes to more deaths than any other drug does, and alcohol is involved in one in every ten car crashes. Many would argue vehemently against their inclusion in any legal drug classification scale, for two main reasons. Firstly, the scheduling of alcohol and tobacco may lead to additional restrictions upon these two drugs. Secondly, if alcohol and tobacco are not restricted when scheduled, regulations against other drugs in the same category may be relaxed.
Some people do not want additional restrictions upon alcohol and tobacco for economic reasons. In some regions, these two drugs are economic staples. However, currently illegal drugs could generate even more economic exchange than the tobacco and alcohol industries. Just because a product or industry is economically successful doesn't mean that it should be permitted to thrive. The slave trade fostered an enormous economic boom, yet no one uses that as an argument for its continuation. A stronger argument for the continued legalization of alcohol and tobacco has to do with the liberty of the American citizen to choose his actions for himself. Proponents of this idea would argue that the people who use tobacco and alcohol are consenting adults, fully aware of the risks involved, and so they are responsible for their own health. If one believes that health risk alone should not be cause enough to eliminate these two drugs, though, then why should other drugs with similar or lesser health risks be kept illegal?
As an American citizen, the first step towards changing the legal system is to stop encouraging politicians to be dogmatic on issues like drugs. Especially recently, a politician who changes his mind on an issue is considered "wishy-washy" or a "flip-flopper". This is an attitude that must change if the drug classification system is to be reformed. People are in prison because of the way drugs are classified. If these classifications are built on irrational prejudices instead of reason, then the American legal system is doing its citizens a grave injustice. That is not a risk that any American should be willing to take.
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Cohen, Sidney, MD, and O'Brien, Robert. The Encyclopedia of Drug Abuse. New York: Green Spring Inc, 1984.
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"Prohibition (drugs)." Wikipedia. 24 April 2005. 19 April 2005 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prohibition_%28drugs%29
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