The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Jim Scofield

December 21, 2013

Jim Scofield | Decriminalize drugs, just as we did with tobacco and alcohol

JOHNSTOWN — Every day, the newspaper lists more drug arrests and convictions. Yes, we all know addicts whose lives have been harmed by drugs. And we probably have many friends whose lives have been seriously damaged by alcoholism. Tobacco is even more dangerous, killing about 400,000 Americans per year.

Yet the police no longer, since the end of Prohibition in the 1930s, arrest users and sellers of alcohol. Beer is heavily promoted during major sporting events watched by kids. Cigarette ads are restricted now, but smoking is still heavily promoted by tobacco corporations, whose executives aren’t subject to arrest. Most smokers start at age 13, partly from the influence of movies and ads.

All these substances are problems to at least some extent. However, most of the 70 percent or so of Americans who drink do so safely. Every culture uses some inebriating substances.

The idea of at least decriminalizing drugs is not to increase users. We already have a high usage of street drugs. Decriminalizing them probably wouldn’t increase the amount of use much, if at all. In Portugal, “decriminalization hasn’t made the problem worse,” one expert stated. What we’d like to do is make addiction a medical, not a criminal, problem. Our prisons are shamefully overflowing, in large part due to drug convictions. Drugs don’t cause violence or crime. But the black market for drugs causes violent conflicts between pushers battling for territories and lots of robberies by users desperate for drugs or money to buy them. Alcohol prohibition did the same in the 1920s.

Our police have far too much power to search our homes and persons just because of invasive drug laws.

Blacks use and sell drugs no more than whites, but they are imprisoned much more. In fact, in many ways, the war on drugs has become a war against African-Americans.

Arrests for marijuana possession – the least potent street drug – have tripled in the past 20 years. In New York City, 87 percent of those arrested for pot are blacks and Latinos.

“It is not clear that consuming marijuana or cocaine has significant negative effects if the product is affordable, if we don’t have to risk our lives to get it, and if the product hasn’t been diluted secretly by rat poison” (Jeffrey Miron, Harvard University researcher). We have learned that the same can be said about alcohol, and have kept that substance legal. Yet alcohol kills many more people each year than all illicit drugs combined.

Colorado and Washington state have partially legalized marijuana distribution, and many cities only give out misdemeanor penalties for usage. Licensed dealers, informal friend-to-friend distribution, and cheaper prices – getting rid of “the illegal drug premium” – will probably undercut street pushers. Illegal dealers do “push,” expanding drug usage, especially among the young. Even taxing these drugs, now being tried in Colorado, may provide the funds that will help alleviate the problems.

Unfortunately we allow big corporations like Budweiser to push and glamorize alcohol and Phillip Morris to do the same for cigarettes. It would be better to prevent this sort of product promotion of drugs.

At the same time, accurate public information about the possible dangers is needed, as we do now with these two legal products. Accurate information, not the unsupported scare stuff – “marijuana madness” – authorities often use.

It’s too early to say how best to carry out decriminalization, especially with the numbers of street drugs available. We can work this out, though. But let’s stop imprisoning and ruining the lives of so many Americans, often with absurdly long sentences. Let’s treat drug problems as we do alcohol problems. If someone commits a crime while under the influence, punish them for that crime, not for using.

Let our police be free to protect our real interests, not be overinvolved with repeated drug raids and arrests that pretty obviously are not solving anything. Our streets, offices, and homes will be safer without this misconceived “war on drugs.” These drugs will still be consumed at about the same rate as now, but more safely, for all of us.

I and most of the people I know won’t find legal drugs seductive. And we’ll encourage the skeptical attitude toward them that we now have for alcohol and tobacco.

Jim Scofield of Richland Township is a professor emeritus of English at Pitt-Johnstown.

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Jim Scofield

What is the biggest key to reducing gun violence in Johnstown?

Tackling the area's drug problem.
Controlling folks moving into city housing.
Monitoring folks in treatment centers and halfway houses.
Tougher sentencing by the court system.
More police on the streets.

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