On the heels of my previous post, CNN published a report Organized crime won the war on drugs and this was in the LA Times: U.S. can’t justify its drug war spending. It’s nice to know that the media are following me. 🙂
Just how harmful are illegal drugs? To answer that question we need to look at two aspects of harm:
- The harm that the drugs themselves do to the users;
- The peripheral harm done by the distribution of drugs.
The harm of the drugs themselves
This of course depends on the drug.
Marijuana is pretty harmless. There are no credible studies linking it to cancer. Whereas 450,000 people a year die in the US from cigarette smoking and second hand smoke. There is strong evidence that pot smoking can lead to driving accidents, but in many cases the user had alcohol in their blood stream as well as THC. Automobile deaths in the US caused by alcohol numbered a massive 13,846 in 2008.
Cocaine causes addiction in most frequent users. However, there are many casual users who use cocaine infrequently without getting addicted. Cocaine use can cause psychosis, especially when taken as crack, (see below) but this is rare in powdered cocaine. It can also harm internal organs but nowhere near as badly as alcohol or tobacco. Direct deaths from alcohol in the US are 23,000 per year, from tobacco, 450,000, yet, according to the CDC, in 2007 there were around 6,000 deaths due to cocaine overdose. However, most cocaine overdoses are the result of the fact that dosages are not regulated and it is easy for a user to buy cocaine of a higher level of purity than expected. Less an inherent problem with the drug as with the illegal distribution system.
Heroin, like tobacco, is highly addictive to almost all users. Withdrawal pains are excruciating. Prolonged use of heroin can weaken teeth and internal organs. But in 2007 only 2,000 people in the US died from heroin use. Again, this was due to overdosing, which would occur far less if the drug dosages were regulated.
Crack and Crystal Meth are synthetic drugs and are the most harmful illegal drugs. Both are highly addictive. Short-term problems from crack use include high blood pressure, insomnia, faster heart rate and decreased appetite. Crack can be a factor in heart attacks and strokes and prolonged usage can lead to other problems, such as decreased motor skills, paranoia, hallucination and gangrene of the bowel. Dramatic loss of appetite can lead to malnutrition. Crystal Meth also causes malnutrition, decreased motor skills, extreme paranoia and permanent brain damage.
Interestingly, crack and crystal only exist because drugs are illegal. For example, cocaine is the “Rolls Royce” of drugs. It is expensive and the drug of choice of many high rollers and celebrities. The drug dealers wanted to increase their market share of cocaine, without dropping its highly lucrative premium pricing. Thus was born crack: a sythetic drug using a small amount of cocaine that could be sold to people who could not, or could no longer, afford cocaine.
The harm of illegal drugs has been blown out of all proportion. Only about 1% of the population are addicted to illegal drugs whereas 4% are alcoholics and 24% are addicted to tobacco. Deaths caused by alcohol and tobacco are approximately 100 times greater than deaths from illegal drugs.
The harm from distribution
The major harm of drugs comes from:
- crime committed to acquire money to buy drugs;
- death from overdose;
- internecine gang warfare;
- murders of law enforcement officers;
- governments wasting billions on the war on drugs
All this in an unsuccessful attempt to stop 1% of the population being addicted.
There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that if drugs were legalized and regulated, more people would use them. In fact tobacco use, which is legal and regulated, is on the decline in North America and Europe. However, if drug usage and addiction doubled, it would be a very small price to pay to stop the bleeding of funds from government and the rising wealth and power of the drug gangs.
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