Never Give Up!

A Message to the 2014 Oregon Summit

From Robert L. DuPont, M.D.

President, Institute for Behavior and Health, Inc.

The modern drug abuse epidemic which began in the late 1960s continues to evolve and to grow increasingly deadly. The rise in prescription drug abuse over the last decade and the exploding problem of designer drugs are two harbingers of the future evolution of this epidemic. Combined with increasingly permissive drug policies, the damage to our nation, communities, and families from drug abuse will soon match or exceed the damage caused by the two legal drugs, alcohol and tobacco.

The Oregon Summit faces a global challenge: How to reduce the terrible toll of drugs with strategies that are compatible with contemporary laws and culture. It is tragic that, despite the high price now being paid by Americans for legal alcohol and tobacco – two of the leading causes of preventable death – our nation’s approach to those drugs is now serving as an attractive model for other drugs of abuse, beginning with marijuana. Why? The answer is simple: Tobacco and alcohol are so familiar and so many people use these substances with no immediate and apparent problems that these everyday experiences reassure us that their use is acceptable. The common view that alcohol prohibition failed hangs over today’s drug policy debates seeming to prove that prohibition “does not work.”

Those who seek to normalize drug use, starting but not ending with marijuana, have carried the day convincing a growing number of Americans that the biggest problem with drugs is their prohibition. Their solution is clear: Legalize the currently illegal drugs and institute a tax and regulate strategy like that in place for alcohol and tobacco.

Attractive as this view may be, it is dangerously wrong. Look at the numbers: In the past 30 days, 52% of Americans age 12 and older drank alcohol, 27% used tobacco and only 9% used any of the currently illegal drugs. Only 7% smoked marijuana in that period of time. Alcohol and tobacco cause far more health problems than do all of the illegal drugs combined, including the “costs” of drug prohibition. Illegal drugs are not dangerous because they are illegal; they are illegal because they are dangerous. The illegal status of marijuana has prevented millions of Americans from using that intoxicating drug. The illegal drugs, including marijuana, are more biologically attractive than alcohol or tobacco. The legalization of marijuana – or any other drug – would dramatically increase its use, and could reach the levels now seen for alcohol and tobacco. The public health consequences of that level of marijuana use are frightening and would adversely affect highway safety, the workplace, and education. The negative consequences of marijuana legalization are especially serious for our families and communities.

The U.S. is now moving rapidly toward full legalization of marijuana, leading to the creation of a massive and powerful marijuana industry as we now have for alcohol and tobacco. Surely “Big Pot” will work as hard – and as successfully – to curb regulation and enforcement as Big Alcohol and Big Tobacco do today.

Nevertheless, legal marijuana will not mean that everyone will use marijuana, any more than legal alcohol and tobacco means everyone uses those two substances. The significant rise in marijuana use resulting from legalization will not peak overnight. In fact, a sharp rise in marijuana use has already begun with the first whiff of legalization. Because marijuana legalization is a national issue, the increase in marijuana use from legalization will not be limited to the states of Washington and Colorado where legalization was successfully passed. Marijuana use will continue to grow, perhaps as alcohol use did after the repeal of prohibition, over the course of a decade or more into the future.

Because of this growing push to legalize marijuana, there is deep and troubling demoralization of our still-small community of people working to keep marijuana illegal and to keep its use down. This demoralization is unfortunate because legalization will bring more marijuana use and more marijuana-caused problems. Everything we are doing now to limit the use of marijuana and the problems resulting from that use will be more important after legalization – not less important. The success of the legalizers makes our work more urgent. With legal marijuana, prevention and treatment become more difficult but even more vital.

It is important to stress that the drug legalization movement is not limited to marijuana. Other drugs are on the same path starting with medical and quasi-medical use and ending with outright legalization, in the model of alcohol and tobacco. Psychedelic drugs such as LSD and Ecstasy are already well along that path, promoted as “psychedelic medicine” like the successful spread of “medical marijuana.” Other drugs, likely stimulants, will follow behind these pathfinders.

Tragically, the groups most vulnerable to newly legalized drugs, including marijuana, will be youth, the disadvantaged and the mentally ill. They will suffer the most serious negative consequences of these permissive drug policy changes.

The history of drug policy is that when drug problems worsen, the countermeasures, including the use of the criminal law, become more vigorous and more widely supported by the public. In fact, it is precisely the suffering caused by drug use that triggers the countermeasures that curtail drug use. This happened in the early 1970s when the heroin epidemic created strong public support for law enforcement as well as for prevention and treatment, despite what was then a strong movement to legalize heroin for medical purposes and to encourage heroin maintenance programs. Strong public rejection of rising drug use happened yet again in response to the cocaine epidemic in the late 1980s when new laws were enacted to curtail its use.

I assure you that every single victory of the drug legalizers and those who favor drug tolerance, let alone their shameless encouragement of marijuana use as medicine and as safe fun, are at the same time building the now largely latent public support for later anti-drug measures.

Take heart. After we shed some sober tears for the thousands of victims of drug problems resulting from the successful implementation of marijuana legalization, recognize that their suffering will not have been in vain. Eventually – and I think the wait for this switch in public sentiment will not be long in coming – the policy corrections that are needed to reduce drug use will emerge and grow rapidly.

Further, take heart in the fact that our efforts to prevent and treat drug problems are needed more because of the often well-meaning but tragically misguided people who today are promoting the normalization of the use of the currently illegal drugs.

My message to you today can be summarized as follows: Do not be discouraged by the current difficult political and media drug policy environment. We must increase and improve our public and media education efforts. We must continue to emphasize treatment and family-based drug prevention. You are saving lives. You are also building the foundation of a smarter drug policy that will arise from the problems being created by the current push to normalize and legalize marijuana and other drugs.

 Source: April 2014

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