Thursday, August 21, 2008

Drug Use...

The chart at right summarizes the findings of a study recently published at the Public Library of Science (PLoS). As usual, click to enlarge it.

There are lots of interesting findings in here, but I'm going to focus on just one: marijuana use in the U.S. vs. the Netherlands. I'm picking on that one because here in the U.S., marijuana use is illegal (though enforcement in many areas is almost non-existent), and in the Netherlands it is legal (you can walk into a coffee shop and buy the stuff). The study found that 42% of Americans surveyed claimed to have at least tried marijuana, versus just 20% of the Dutch.

That “war on drugs” sure has been successful, hasn't it?

People who know me are often surprised that I believe drug use should be legalized here – because I don't use any illegal drugs (I do drink a glass of wine many evenings, but that's about the extent of my mind-altering drug use). So why do I advocate legalizing drugs? Most fundamentally, it's because I believe people should be free to make choices that harm themselves, if that's what they want to do. As a society, we're very inconsistent about which risky choices we allow. For example, in most areas one can gamble (even if it's just the lottery) legally – even though that's a demonstrably risky choice. It's legal for us to participate in risky sports. It's legal for us to smoke. It's legal for us to drink alcohol, if we're old enough. But for reasons that seem quite arbitrary and capricious to me, we don't allow people to use certain drugs that we've deemed illegal.

This study looks at drug use from a different perspective: what drugs are actually being used, and by what number of people? This is fascinating data, for many reasons, but for me most especially for its illumination of the grand failure of the war on drugs. All those people in jail, all those crimes committed to pay the price of drugs that is artificially stratospheric simply because they are illegal, and all that time, money, and energy wasted on a completely ineffective interdiction effort.

This data suggests that the most effective way to reduce drugs use might be to make them all legal – perhaps then our usage rates would drop to the low levels experienced by the Netherlands!