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Monday, June 19, 2006 | A great deal of what you hear and read about illicit drugs is either misleading or plain wrong and it is almost impossible for the well-meaning general reader to know the truth from the falsehoods and do something about them. No wonder that nearly every effort to tackle the serious illicit drug problem in the United States has been failing for the last 80-some years that various agencies have been trying to solve it.

It is a repeat of the 1920-1933 alcohol prohibition experiment now extended to other mind-altering drugs many times over, and with the same ultimate results. Some people want to see illicit drugs legalized, but there is not a chance in the world to see that happen in the foreseeable future, and that is not likely to solve the problem either.

Yet there is a long- term solution that was offered on April 25, 1988 by The Honorable Kurt L. Schmoke, mayor of Baltimore, addressing the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C. about the drug problems existing in his city. His landmark proposition is especially applicable to the San Diego region which abuts yet another large city across the border in Mexico, a major conduit on both sides for the flow of illegal drugs.

What Mayor Schomke said was “(1)…Prosecution and incarceration of substance abusers will not stop either drug abuse or drug-related crimes…(2)…urge the American people in general, and my fellow mayors in particular, to enter into a constructive debate about viable alternatives to the wasteful war on drugs,…and (3)… to spark a change from our current policy of using criminal laws to fight drugs to a policy that emphasizes public health strategies…”

In other words, what about converting the issue of drug abuse from a criminal to a public health one? That makes a lot more sense. This is not “legalization” or “decriminalization,” both of which retain the flavor of criminal rather than public health law. Abuse of tobacco and alcohol remain expensive and dangerous, but they are controlled to limit their access to adults who can better afford to pay for the high taxes they command. One of these drugs that could be added to this duo is marijuana, standardized as to strength and safety, and limited as to underage access and enhanced by taxation as a source of income for state and federal governments.

There are good reasons to suggest that this approach is more humane, more effective and a lot less expensive to control consumption. The assumption underlying the “medicalization” of mind-altering drugs is simply that it is a pipe dream, as Prohibition was, to believe that can be totally abolished from our society as poverty, conflict and hopelessness.

Beyond tobacco, alcohol and marijuana there exists a large number of mind-altering drugs, some of which are used legally in medicine, in some primeval religious activities and in mostly illegal recreational experiences. The most important of them include opium, derived from the juice of the unripe opium poppy. Opium can be purified to extract a variety of alkaloids such as morphine and codeine. Opium can be chemically modified to yield such substances as heroin, or produce powerful synthetic related substances as fentanyl. Because opium derivatives mimic natural secretions, these substances have powerful effect to reduce pain, and to effectively treat a variety of diseases.

Opium and its derivatives were almost the universal medicaments of the 19th century, for disease conditions real and imagined. They readily cause addiction and deterioration of life.

Cocaine is obtained from the leaves of the coca bush native of Peru and Bolivia, but it is also cultivated in a number of other countries. Coca-Cola once contained cocaine but now its secret formula is said to use a “decocainized” coca. It was the first local anesthetic used in 1884, and in professional hands, it has many useful pharmaceutical functions. Although producing a “high” it is a highly toxic substance.

Unfortunately the high cost of cocaine has been to a great extent displaced by methamphetamines that can relatively easily be made in “bathtub” makeshift chemistry laboratories with frequently lethal results. The methamphetamine high is almost indistinguishable from the cocaine ones and has become one of the most dangerous illicit drugs extant. There are many more substances that can generate a high with devastating results.

If the truth about the mind-altering drugs was honestly described and taught without exaggerations as a medical and public health concern, it is likely that many teen-agers in particular would take notice and probably stay away from the truly dangerous illicit substances widely available in the marketplace.

Elie Shneour is research director & president of Biosystems Research Institute. He is also involved in San Diego regional and in national issues involving science in domestic and foreign affairs. Agree? Disagree? Send a letter to the editor.

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