U.S. Drug Policy: Maximizing Harm

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By Robert Sharpe

In his June Youth Today column (“What Are You People? On Dope?”), Mike Males accuses the drug policy reform movement of misrepresenting Dutch drug policy and of using irrelevant rates of adolescent drug use to gauge the effectiveness of U.S. policy.

But there is a good reason the leaders of the drug policy reform movement consider the public health approach of countries like the Netherlands as models for reform.

Drug Policy Alliance Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann has consistently argued that drug policy needs a new bottom line – one that focuses not on reducing the total number of people who use drugs, but rather on reducing the death, disease, crime and suffering associated with both drug use and drug prohibition.

While Europe has largely abandoned the drug war in favor of harm reduction alternatives, U.S. drug policy is best described as harm maximization.Consider the Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy (RAVE) Act making its way through Congress.

This knee-jerk reaction to the increased use of Ecstasy targets youth subculture. If passed, the act will punish dance clubs and rave promoters that provide life-saving harm-reduction education, bottled water and “chill rooms” designed to prevent ecstasy-related heatstroke, which is potentially fatal.By the time they graduate from high school, half of American teenagers will have used an illegal drug.

Many youths don’t take “just say no” school-based programs seriously, doubting the validity of their information. Reality-based drug education promotes the ideal of abstinence while providing a fallback strategy of honest, science-based education for teenagers who say “maybe,” “sometimes” or “yes.”If Congress is truly concerned about adolescents using Ecstasy, it will vote down anti-rave legislation that outlaws the dissemination of reality-based drug education at venues where it’s needed most.Congress isn’t the only prominent institution to get it wrong when it comes to kids and drugs.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled (5-4) that schools can require drug tests of students who participate in extracurricular activities. Youth who enroll in the choir or debate team can hardly be considered at-risk.More importantly, youth involvement in after-school activities has been shown to reduce drug use. These activities keep kids busy during the hours they are most likely to get into trouble.

Forcing students to undergo degrading urine tests as a prerequisite will only discourage participation in extracurricular activities.Pointing out the counterproductive aspects of U.S. drug policy does not constitute demonizing youth.

To be fair, Males makes valid points about the irrelevance of punitive marijuana laws. For widely available, relatively harmless drugs like marijuana, the impact of laws on rates of use is negligible.The Netherlands permits the sale of marijuana in regulated “coffee shops.” De facto legalization has not led to rampant marijuana use.

Dutch rates of marijuana use are fairly average by European standards. Based on findings that criminal records are inappropriate as health interventions, a majority of European Union countries have decriminalized marijuana. Despite comparatively harsh penalties, lifetime use of marijuana is higher in the U.S. than any European country.Dutch policy recognizes that marijuana use may often just be a youthful indiscretion.

Although Dutch rates of illicit drug use are lower than U.S. rates in every category, it’s the significantly lower use of drugs like heroin that leads reformers to extol the overall success of Dutch drug policy.

According to the Trimbos Institute there, “the risk of hard drug use increases as an individual becomes increasingly integrated into an environment (subculture) in which hard drugs are available as well as cannabis.

It is therefore important to separate the drug markets.” Simply put, Dutch drug policy seeks to close the “gateway” to hard drugs.Males may be right about problematic middle-age drug users, but that doesn’t mean drug policy shouldn’t strive to prevent today’s marijuana-smoking teenager from becoming tomorrow’s cocaine and heroin user.

Robert Sharpe is a program officer with the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance, based in Washington, D.C. www.drugpolicy.org.