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“Just say ‘No!’.” Drugs have not been discussed frankly and openly in US politics since the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 was passed. The framework passed then set up five categories or “schedules” of drugs based on their medical use and potential for abuse and how they would be regulated. Over the years laws that reinforce this regulatory structure have been passed and criminal penalties raised and lowered, but the basic concept has remained solid.

Since that time, however, many changes have occurred on the fringes of “drug” use in the US. Tobacco use has been banned from most public places and drinking ages were raised to curb their use. Prescription drug abuse has become an epidemic. Caffeine consumption has roughly tripled and is now available in high purity. Even marijuana, criminalized since 1937, has become de facto legal in several states.

Treatment programs are available for anyone who wants to stop using any of these “drugs”, but some of them have to watch out for the laws that stand in their way. Is it time to completely revamp how we regulate and criminalize “drugs”?

Of all the changes that have taken place in the substances Americans use to control the ebb and flow of their lives, none is more glaring than caffeine consumption. People have suspected that coffee is bad for you at least since it was first introduced to the developed world about 400 years ago from Arabia, but nothing has ever been proven conclusively. Today, the average American drinks 3.1 cups of coffee per day and gallons of caffeinated soda per year. Energy drink sales are around $8B per year. If that still isn’t enough jolt, you can buy liquid caffeine to slurp into any beverage for a “mind blowing 500mg of caffeine” (about 3 cups of coffee).

People have died from too much caffeine, but the market is completely unregulated in any way at all. Should it be regulated? If so, how? If it is not regulated, then how can we justify criminalizing marijuana?

The last question may seem like a leap, but since 1996 “medical” marijuana has been available to anyone who sees a certain “doctor” in California. In practice anyone can legally buy marijuana for personal use and not worry about a thing once they jump through a few hoops. Sixteen states now have such laws in place, but none has gone as far as Colorado, which takes in $2.2M per year in taxes on the stuff. A ballot measure this year would completely legalize marijuana and get rid of the “prescription” system in place now, and has a good chance of passing.

Contrast that with New York, where walking through a park with a lit cigarette can get you a $50 fine.

Much more can be said on this vast topic. By some estimates the largest percentage of those addicted to drugs are using prescription drugs. And there is a terrible civil war in Mexico, likely to spread to other nations, between the police and drug traffickers mostly running marijuana. The policies we have in place simply do not make sense any longer and do not reflect the actual attitudes and use by Americans.

What is the right policy? While researching this topic I was looking for anyone who had some ideas on a comprehensive framework that took into account all the changes in how we use various drugs and how we treat those who are addicted. I could not find any such thing. Drugs of all kinds have to be added to that long list of things that we have been unable to have a rational dialogue about in order to produce a functional system that reflects our current values and habits.  But there has to be someone, somewhere, who has a few very good ideas (even if I can’t find them on my own).

So why not start now? How should we regulate “drugs” – or what should be the criteria for deciding what is regulated? What is the real public need to regulate at all versus when is drug use simply a personal choice? How should treatment for addiction be handled when it becomes an issue?

I would love your opinions, and especially any links to articles that you may have come across. Thanks.


9 thoughts on “Drugs

  1. I have been impressed with what I’ve read about what they are doing in Portugal. Here is a link to a good article on the topic.
    Basically they see addiction as a medical problem and treat it as that first. I don’t think this is quite as comprehensive as what you are talking about with decriminalizing marijuana and possibly regulating caffeine (if that is really what you are calling for?) but it is a way to look at it that I think is really helpful.

  2. Thank you, that’s what I’m looking for. I’m not calling for anything here because I have no way to look at the whole topic that makes much sense to me – but the increase in caffeine consumption and purity of what is available is astonishing.
    I guess to me any policy has to start with education – do people know that 500mg of caffeine can kill them? After that, definition of real public threats is very important, such as how alcohol impairs driving ability. Then I think we get to policy on addiction for those who have developed a problem, and the Portuguese model looks very interesting.
    But what should be illegal and/or how it is enforced still escapes me at this point. I don’t see why marijuana should be illegal, but I can’t imagine cocaine being legal somehow – and I really can’t justify that without a better framework for thinking this through.

  3. I don’t know what to think about this either but there is a lot of support for legalizing at least marijuana. The Colorado amendment has not made it onto the ballot yet but the group behind it says they will get the signatures. http://legalize2012.com/ I found a poll on this a while back when looking for same-sex marriage, its interesting that Colorado seems to favor both. http://www.publicpolicypolling.com/main/2011/12/colorado-favors-gay-marriage-marijuana-use-loves-tebow.html#more

    • Thanks for the correction and links. I read about the Colorado amendment a bit too quickly. The support for it does seem quite strong, unlike California, so there may be a state issuing a direct challenge to the Feds. I have no idea how the arguments will go on that topic.

  4. Great article, Erik! Honestly, prohibition in general needs to be put on the federal table and dealt with again, but our Congressional leaders are too busy trying to raise funds for re-election, or are too chicken-sh*t to take a stand that might ruffle a few constituent feathers to do anything proactively. The so-called “war on drugs” is an absolute disaster, and between the cost of that ‘war’ and the cost of incarcerating drug related crimes, it’s time for this country to wake up and smell the coffee. (sorry… just couldn’t help myself :). My stance is that we need massive legalization of cannabis and alcohol. We the people have a right to drug ourselves in any manner we so choose, as you so clearly pointed out about the abuse of caffeine. Our hypocrisy is now flaming!

    • It really has gotten stranger all the time, hasn’t it? The hypocrisy of “medical marijuana” is pretty strange, too. Might as well just legalize it rather than go through this nonsense.

  5. “Drugs of all kinds have to be added to that long list of things that we have been unable to have a rational dialogue”

    I think this says it all.

  6. The war on drugs is just an attempt to control people so why change a thing? The agenda of the elite is laid bare by campaigns to legalize marijuana because the response is just the same old shit. They have nothing and know it but don’t care.

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