By Clifford W. Thornton

Drug prohibition causes significant harm. Given the opportunity, it is not difficult for most adults to see that. However, difficulty arises when the message becomes "dump prohibition" — the message that desperately needs to be accepted if the harm is to be ended. Ironically, one of the major barriers to "getting it" is the parental fear that by eliminating punishment for using mood or mind-altering drugs one would "send the wrong message" to youth. To be realistic, in a vacuum of no-community, legalizing problem drugs probably would convey "risky drugs aren't so bad" and therefore, as if we have no communities, our nation has come to rely on the federal laws to be the messenger. Yet, with the messenger as a typical youth's family and community—where values really come from—one finds little messaging that mind-altering drugs are OK.

In a civil society, it ought to be communities—in all its forms—that communicates a moral compass. Laws, although supportive, are not that compass. Even so, Efficacy is not advocating removal of prohibition unless an effective replacement system is securely in place. Nor are we advocating that the dealers and distributors be given a free hand to engage in their trade with impunity. Ending of the drug war requires there be in place social institutions, communities and wisdom folk providing a community-based backstop of mentoring and prevention. And for those who use drugs anyway and manage to get caught in a cycle of problem drug use, then there must be in place adequate, accessible and effective treatment.

Regarding tobacco—which delivers an addictive drug—our society has witnessed a remarkable decrease in the use of tobacco by adults and it was not achieved by locking up smokers. We did pass no-smoking laws at the local level, but only to say smoking was illegal in certain [desirable] places; a very powerful yet under appreciated sending-of-the-message. Since the surgeon general began reporting on the health consequences of tobacco in 1964, per-capita consumption of tobacco in the United States has been cut roughly in half. This is a testament to the efficacy of assuming a measured rather than a punitive paradigm for sending the message.

Messages communities send to their youth have details a punitive, law-driven approach cannot carry. When one has gained a youth's respect, a right message—such as a community might send—is that mind-altering drugs are risky and can damage health or even destroy life. The right message is that the risk of addiction is significantly decreased for those who delay their first use of drugs. The right message is that if, despite warnings, a young person uses drugs, he or she should know the signs of addiction and seek treatment without fear of punishment. And lastly, the right courage is to openly discuss ways to reduce risks of harm if, despite warnings, a young person decides to put drugs in his or her body.

Physicians and others in drug-addiction treatment know that drug addiction is curable. Drug treatment is "as successful as treatment of other chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and asthma," according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse. And the costs of effective treatment are much lower than the costs of incarceration. Additionally, one can get over an addiction. It is much harder to get over a drug conviction.

A complete vision of a workable alternative to drug prohibition has not emerged. Still, it is clear criminal law will always have a role to play. Driving under the influence of any mind-altering drug will continue to be prohibited and punished. Drug dealing and the giving or selling of mind-altering drugs to minors will remain illegal and carry prison time. While being true to these fundamentals, a non-punitive vision is carrying us forward.

In shifting our nation's efforts to control risky drugs into a non-punitive framework, we are restoring responsibility to where it belongs: we are letting communities have a free hand in setting their own detailed message for the youth of their community. It is time for our nation to rediscover this self-evident truth that any message is richer and more effective when coming from a youth's own community. In the final analysis, we are on a search for the right messenger — it's not what message to send, but rather, in whom do we put our faith in sending it.


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