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Recently Mexico threatened to decriminalize illicit drugs by allowing small quantities of them to be possessed and used by individuals. The immediate reflex reaction from San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders and many other leaders and law enforcement officials across the nation was to indignantly rebuff this possibility as a grave danger to the United States.

As a result, Mexico President Vicente Fox promised to veto any measure to that effect, and as of now it appears to be dead. Everyone in his right mind recognizes the danger that illicit drugs present to society, but a careful reflection on how this nation has handled the matter should give pause. The “War on Drugs” has been just about as successful as our “War on Terror” and it may be useful to examine why this turned out to be so.

Throughout human history, except for tobacco during a short period in Asia, there were no illicit drugs, and thus no laws to prohibit their use. Alcohol and other “drugs” were controlled by social mores and traditions. In fact morphine was once considered a cure for alcoholism!

It is the rapid increase in means of transportation that first created both moral and legal distinctions among mind-altering drugs, as Steven Duke and Albert Gross discuss in their excellent book “America’s Longest War” (NY: Putnam, 1993). Until 1914, it was possible to purchase opiates and cocaine from both pharmacies and other commercial outlets. Pharmacists finally convinced Congress to “medicalize” opiates and cocaine by passing the Harrison Act that limited their sale to pharmacies. That act began the steady slide into drug-prohibition laws in the United States, and eventually to a “War on Drugs”.

The major casualty of the “War on Drugs” has been the truth. The United States has used criminal law to try to eradicate the use of illicit drugs for more than 80 years, not only without success, but also at a colossal cost in the devastation of lives and waste of resources. As the great journalist Eric Sevareid once said “the chief cause of problems is solutions.”

Some activists attribute the cause of illicit drug-associated crimes, from murders to corruption, to their criminalization and not to their consumption. Others point out that the human craving for these drugs being made illegal, have created two huge industries to control them: An illegal commerce industry in drugs, raising their demand price by orders of magnitude, and a law enforcement industry to interdict their availability. Neither side of the “War on Drugs” is ever likely to win.

What makes this implausible “war” unlikely to be won by either side is that the two most dangerous drugs on the market today are legal in any desired quantity: By far the worst of the two is tobacco, followed well behind but still deadly by alcohol.

The 60 mg. of nicotine contained in three regular cigarettes will kill an adult {J. Brooks, “The Mighty Leaf: Tobacco through the Centuries” (Boston: Little, Brown, 1952) p. 281]. The depredations of alcohol are well known especially as a result of the failed Prohibition Experiment 1920-1933. It created an international mafia that still survives and has grown mightily to traffic in illicit drugs today. Prohibition barely decreased the consumption of alcohol. A cruel form of Prohibition continues to this day that threatens physicians with loss of their license in their use of opiates in severe-pain management of terminally ill, major surgical and trauma patients.

The “War on Drugs” has created a system of justice that is unconscionable. According to the Cato Institute, a 27-year old paraplegic in Washington D.C. was sentenced for marijuana possession to 10 days in jail where he died under suspicious circumstances. A wheelchair-bound multiple sclerosis patient is serving a 25-year sentence for using an out-of-state physician to obtain pain medication. The list of such “criminals,” jailed for years, numbers into the many thousands.

The number of individuals sickened or killed as a result of tobacco and alcohol consumption substantially exceeds the number of those who use all illicit drugs, however defined, combined.

There ought to be a better way to control the use of these drugs, and all Mexico was probably trying to do was to find some way out of the illicit drug dilemma. The main trouble with it was that Mexico did not consult with the United States first, to determine whether action by both countries might not have been a way to minimize the social impact of the drug plague.

Elie A. Shneour, a native of France and World War II U.S. veteran, is president of Biosystems Institutes, Inc. and research director of Biosystems Research Institute of San Diego. Send a letter to the editor here.

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