More Silliness in America's War
America has a serious drug problem, but it's not the
"meth epidemic" getting so much publicity. It's the problem
identified by William Bennett, the former national drug czar and gambler.
"Using drugs," he wrote, "is wrong not simply because drugs
create medical problems; it is wrong because drugs destroy one's moral
sense. People addicted to drugs neglect their duties."
This problem afflicts a small minority of the people who have tried
methamphetamines, but most of the law-enforcement officials and
politicians who lead the war against drugs. They're so consumed with drugs
that they've lost sense of their duties.
Like addicts desperate for a high, they've declared meth the new crack,
which was once called the new heroin (that title now belongs to
Oxycontin). With the help of the press, they're once again frightening the
public with tales of a drug so seductive it instantly turns masses of
upstanding citizens into addicts who ruin their health, their lives and
Amphetamines certainly can do harm and are a fad in some places. But
there's little evidence of a new national epidemic from patterns of drug
arrests or drug use. The percentage of high-school seniors using
amphetamines has remained fairly constant in the past decade, and actually
declined slightly the past two years. Nor is meth diabolically addictive.
If an addict is someone who has used a drug in the previous month (a
commonly used, if overly broad, definition), then only 5 percent of
Americans who have sampled meth would be called addicts, according to the
federal government's National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
That figure is slightly higher than the addiction rate for people who have
sampled heroin (3 percent), but it's lower than for crack (8 percent),
painkillers (10 percent), marijuana (15 percent) or cigarettes (37
percent). Among people who have sampled alcohol, 60 percent had a drink
the previous month, and 27 percent went on a binge (defined as five drinks
on one occasion) during the month. Drug warriors point to the dangers of
home-cooked meth labs, which start fires and create toxic waste. But those
labs and the burned victims are a result of the drug war itself.
Amphetamine pills were easily available, sold over the counter, until the
1950s, then routinely prescribed by doctors to patients who wanted to lose
weight or stay awake. It was only after the authorities cracked down in
the 1970s that many people turned to home labs and gangs of criminals
marketing new ways (snorting, smoking) to get a high from the chemical.
It's the same pattern observed during Prohibition, when illicit stills
exploded and deaths from alcohol poisoning increased. Far from instilling
virtue in Americans, Prohibition caused them to switch from beer to hard
liquor. Overall consumption of alcohol may well have increased.
Today we tolerate alcohol, even though it causes far more harm than
illegal drugs, because we realize a ban would be futile, create more
problems than it cured and deprive too many people of something they
Amphetamines have benefits, too, which is why Air Force pilots are given
them. "Most people can take amphetamines responsibly," said
Jacob Sullum, the author of "Saying Yes," a book debunking drug
scares. "Like most drugs, their benefits outweigh the costs for most
people. I'd rather be driving next to a truck driver on speed than a truck
driver who's falling sleep."
Shutting down every meth lab in America wouldn't eliminate meth because
most of it is imported, but the police and prosecutors have escalated
their efforts anyway and inflicted more collateral damage.
In Georgia they're prosecuting dozens of Indian convenience-store clerks
and managers for selling cold medicine and other legal products. As Kate
Zernike reported in The New York Times, some of them spoke little English
and seemed to have no idea the medicine was being used to make meth.
The prosecutors seem afflicted by the confused moral thinking that Bennett
blames on narcotics. "Drugs," he wrote, "undermine the
necessary virtues of a free society – autonomy, self-reliance and
If you value individual responsibility, why would you send a hard-working
clerk to jail for not divining that someone else might manufacture a drug?
If you value autonomy and self-reliance, why would you spend so much time
and money to stop people from taking a substance that's less addictive and
harmful than alcohol?
By John Tierney
THE NEW YORK TIMES