Drug Myths from Abroad: Leniency Is Dangerous, Not Compassionate

Few issues generate more heat than substance abuse. Most Americans yearn for simple solutions that will make the problem go away. Ethan A. Nadelmann thinks he has found some in the experiences of some foreign countries. These, he argues, are sensible alternatives to America's failed policies ("Commonsense Drug Policy," January/February 1998). But his analysis merely further disseminates myths about overseas "successes" that do much to hinder the evolution of reasonable, popular, and effective U.S. drug policies.

Nadelmann maintains that "drugs are here to stay" and focuses on reducing the harm they cause. True, the United States will never be totally drug-free, any more than it will ever be totally crime-free or disease-free. But that is no cause for despair. Were the United States committed to an unambiguous and full-scale confrontation with illicit drugs, drug use could be brought down to a bare minimum and its extraordinary social and economic costs substantially reduced. There is no convincing evidence that liberalizing drug policies and accommodating drug use will reduce these harmful effects. Nor is there evidence of a need to ease up now. There is, however, ample proof that the consistent exercise of restrictive policies can minimize the damage. Such policies brought drug abuse under control in societies as diverse as Japan and Sweden. Widespread drug use need not be a fixture of modern life.

Those who advocate abandoning U.S. efforts to contain drug abuse often urge Americans to learn from the experiences of other countries. One of their favorite "successes" is Switzerland, which Nadelmann lauds for supposedly showing that keeping addicts on heroin prevents them from committing crimes and using other drugs. Organizers of a 1994 Swiss demonstration reported several benefits from supplying addicts with heroin, including less drug use and crime as well as better health, psychological well-being, and social skills. But these results are based primarily on unverified reports made by the participants themselves. No systematic verification of their claims was made by, say, regular urine screening, HIV testing, or examination of police records. Nevertheless, 18 months into the program, by the unverified accounts of the participants, fully 52 percent of them were using cocaine and a similar number were still using illicit heroin.

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