Getting the Pointlessness

Amidst the continuing furor of anti-drug polemics and hysterics, it's easy to make the casual observer forget one of the basic realities of this issue: Most people who use drugs are okay. For most of the people who use drugs, it's OK that they are using drugs. We may legitimately worry about those who truly have problems with their drug use, and the people they may affect; we legitimately worry about the consequences of the illicit trade in drugs -- which is to say, the consequences of prohibition. And we would like to see the drug trade made less accessible to children.

But when one faces facts straight on, they say a simple thing: Most people who use drugs are okay. If results are what count, in most cases it's okay that people are using drugs. Not in all cases, to be sure. But in most cases.

Certain types of civil disobedience can illustrate the pointlessness of criminalization of drug use in a vivid enough way to be both noticed and understood. Members of the European Parliament Marco Cappato of Italy and Chris Davies of Great Britain accomplished this three years ago when they presented themselves to police in the London suburb of Manchester with minute quantities of marijuana attached to the back of a couple of postage stamps, getting arrested in the process. Cappato and Davies weren't even using the marijuana, it wasn't even enough to be used, they clearly were not menacing society in any way, they are highly respectable citizens. Yet it was enough to get them sent to jail in handcuffs. That is an effective demonstration of the pointlessness of criminalization.

Drug reformers in the formerly Communist nation of Hungary are doing something similar right now. Roughly 30 of them have turned themselves in as drug users to Budapest and other city police headquarters since the beginning of April. Among them was a famous novelist who is also grandmother -- clearly not a threat to society. Police are being forced to arrest these people and make the law look ridiculous in the process. It is fueling discussion, not only about casual use of marijuana but also how society deals with the truly problematic drug users. It is raising the issue of the unlucky ones who get caught and might not get a lenient sentence. It may well help to change the country's drug laws.

The criminalization of responsible drug users is only one of the many pointless aspects of drug prohibition. Criminalization of the trade in drugs itself is also pointless, though for more complex reasons that involve economics, public health and many other factors. But criminalization of users is pointless on its face. People may miss that obvious point a lot of the time. But they are capable of grasping it, without a lot of effort, if it is pointed out in a clear and compelling manner.

I believe they can understand the rest of it too. As New Mexico's former governor, Gary Johnson, has put it, support for the drug war is a mile wide but an inch deep. Our drug policies are so far off-base, with such serious consequences, it isn't that hard to get a lot of people, perhaps most, to understand at a minimum that some things are wrong. Prohibition is pointless, but our efforts to end it need not be.

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