Other Opinions

Legalizing drugs may actually limit their use

OxyContin, in 80 mg pills, in a 2013 file image. A recent trial suggests opioids had no pain-relieving advantage over common painkillers in a yearlong trial.
OxyContin, in 80 mg pills, in a 2013 file image. A recent trial suggests opioids had no pain-relieving advantage over common painkillers in a yearlong trial. Los Angeles Times

The Global Commission on Drug Policy was formed in 2011 to study and make recommendations for dealing with drugs in society. For the past several years it has recommended we move toward some form of decriminalization or legalization. In their just-released 2018 report the commission calls for “regulation.” Regulation of drugs, as opposed to banning them, means allowing adults to use legally, but subject to sensible controls.

Some in our country will think the commissioners must be people of relaxed moral standards who just want to make drug use easier. But the opposite is true. They don’t want more drug use, they want less. There are 22 of them and they are experienced leaders. Names familiar in the U.S. are former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volker, former Secretary of State George P. Schultz, former UN General Secretary and Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Airlines founder. Making up the rest of the list are other distinguished men and women. Some are liberals, some are conservatives. They don’t think drug policy should be a question of ideology. You can see them all at the Global Commission on Drugs Org. website. There you can also find the 2018 report.

dave finch
Dave Finch, a retired attorney, blogs about drug issues. Contributed

Their concern is with how best to deal with the devastating effects on communities, families and individuals inflicted by jailing people who use drugs. It’s no longer a question of whether we should stop doing that, but how we should go about it.

Key to success in ending prohibition will be regulations designed to protect and promote both human rights and public health and safety. We brought smoking down with controls on price, packaging, marketing and availability, combined with public health education. More will be needed in the case of hard drugs. And, yes, there are risks. But the savings and societal benefits envisioned are massive. Think about these:

▪ Curtailing access by adolescents where most addictions start

▪ Ridding communities of the traffickers, their violence and corrupting influences

▪ Bringing the addicted into the fold of a counseling program

▪ Disempowering the murderous cartels throughout Mexico and Central America

▪ Saving billions annually in law enforcement and health care

▪ Cutting crime committed to buy drugs

Not all drugs would made legal. The report states: “Priority for legal regulation could be given to substances with the highest prevalence of use in a national context; to plant-based drugs such as cannabis, coca leaf or opium; or to other substances that have some form of historic or traditional use, or are part of a cultural heritage.”

Several countries are solving their opioid overdose problem by dispensing heroin in treating the addicted. These include Switzerland, Holland, Denmark, Germany, England, Spain and Canada. Better formulations of the drug are longer lasting and help to stabilize patients by freeing them from craving and withdrawal so they can hold a job and live healthier lives. In the U.S., our new bipartisan opioid bill, just signed by the president, expands methadone and “bupe” treatment here. Counseling is provided. These programs might serve as models for a wider dispensary program in the U.S.

Moving to drug legalization nationwide is probably too big a bite to try all at once. Five years ago, New Zealand tried it, with chaotic results, and went back to prohibition. A better approach would involve smaller scale experimental models. A new federal law could allow state experimentation with local programs. Under state regulation, a city or county could set up a dispensary, with access limited to residents who prove they are adults and actually live there. Amounts dispensed would be limited to short-term needs. Counselors would advise and monitor the clients. Rules against leakage to minors, buying from street dealers and anti-social behaviors would be enforced as before with legal penalties.

The aim is to drive out the traffickers and the dangerous drugs they peddle. A successful program in one city would serve as a model for others. Fewer illegal dealers means less access to drugs by teens and preteens as well as less crime and corruption. The Global Commission reports this would enhance public health and safety.

Dave Finch is a Roosevelt High School graduate who went on to have a career as a lawyer. Now retired, he lives in the Gold Country town of Penn Valley and posts blogs on drug issues at http://www.finchdiablog.com.