Commentary: The War on Drugs

George Shultz and Paul Volker bring up the need for a reassessment of the "War on Drugs" and a fresh consideration of other options. They don’t ask to legalize drugs across the board. Rather, they ask for opening the topic for debate, considering new solutions, and coming up with a new approach. The one option that we don’t have is to continue the current course.

The problem with illicit drug use is now approaching epidemic proportions. No longer are the drugs just those that can be bought from shady characters in risky venues. Now, the medicine cabinets in our own homes or those of relatives or neighbors are part of the problem. Few have not had the personal experience with friends or neighbors or relatives who have had to cope with lives turned upside down by drug use and addiction. Physicians, especially pediatricians, have all too often acquired tragic stories from patients they care for. We can no longer just assume that what we are doing is working and is adequate. The truth is, the problem is growing worse all the time in spite of all of the efforts and money that we have thrown at it. And it is far beyond a U.S. problem. Consider the brutal slaughter of thousands of people in Mexico as a by-product of drug cartels that exist because of the tremendous appetite for drugs in our country.

We should start by looking back at the lessons that the United States should have learned from our last "War on Drugs". That war started by making another drug, alcohol, illegal. Not everyone is aware that a constitutional amendment was passed making the use, transportation, sale and production of alcohol illegal in the United States. Many of us are familiar with the results of that war through movies and television shows about mobsters and Elliot Ness who was a United States Treasury Agent. Although the death and destruction in that war is nowhere near that seen now, it got so bad that a second constitutional amendment was passed that ALLOWED for the use, transportation, sale, and production of alcohol in 1933. It would be foolish to forget our history. It would be foolish to forget that people who wanted something that was illegal still got it and, often, they became criminals in the process. It would be foolish to forget that the considerable forces of state and federal government could not come between the desire for alcohol and those who provided it.

The amount of death and destruction related to drug dealers and dealings gets less attention now since it has become so commonplace. The death of television and movie and recording stars from drug overdoses has also become less shocking. We consider it a part of the entertainment culture and give it little thought. Yet, when drugs penetrate our inner circle of friends and family, it is anything but routine or mundane. It opens a destructive process that eats away at money, other resources, trust, relationships, and the life of loved ones. As a pediatrician, I have witnessed this first hand.

In the United States, on every day, thousands if not millions of "hard drugs" are being used legally. They are regulated, controlled, and supervised. In almost all cases, the system works quite well and Demerol, morphine, codeine, and even cocaine are dispensed in hospitals, medical and dental offices, and pharmacies in this country every day. They demonstrate that we CAN control drugs and, in fact, we do it right now.

The real issue is not about our ability to regulate and control drugs. It is about which drugs to regulate and control. It is obvious that we don’t want to have the general population using heroin and cocaine and methamphetamine and LSD….but we must help the population already using these drugs to either stop using them or to find safe, controlled alternatives such as methadone. We must continue to vigorously pursue those who make and sell drugs illegally. As difficult as those solutions may be, even more difficult will be the decision to allow access to drugs that are potentially dangerous in themselves or that lead to dangerous behaviors. Alcohol, for example, is one of those drugs and we have chosen, as a society, to allow controlled use by those over a certain age.

A very difficult issue for many is the question of applying the same rules to Marijuana that we have established for alcohol. Some feel that Marijuana is more dangerous than alcohol in that it seems to be the first step in a pathway that that leads to the use of more damaging drugs like cocaine and heroin. Others feel that it is less harmful than alcohol and that there should be no criminal penalties for its use by adults.

There is general agreement that marijuana should not be available, legally, to those who are not old enough to consume alcohol, so that is not an issue. Neither is it an issue that people who consume alcohol or marijuana are responsible for their actions, especially if others are injured as in automobile accidents.

It has become morally unacceptable to say that, given the horrors that drugs can cause, some should be legalized to control their use. Yet, the reality is that, for some drugs, that is a step that we must force ourselves to consider. Not legal in the sense that everyone can use any drug at any age and at any time without concern or consequences.

BUT …. CAN WE TALK at least!

1. The terminology of drugs is misleading. "Hard" drugs are used legally in this country right now. This has been the case for decades. Consider codeine, or Demerol, or morphine that is used in medical settings thousands or millions of times every day. Methadone has been used for over 30 years to treat heroin addiction.

2. Not every drug would be available in a "Drug" or liquor Store. Could the controlled sale of alcohol and marijuana to those over 21 years of age be accomplished. Both are potentially dangerous but neither can be eliminated by just saying that they are illegal. Our culture obviously supports the use of these two drugs over at least the past century. Both are better controlled in the open than underground.

3. Drugs like heroin, morphine, Demerol, amphetamines, cocaine, or LSD would not be available but treatment for addiction would be available with no criminal penalties for those seeking treatment.

4. It would be far better to detect and treat children, teens, young adults, and older adults as soon as possible after they have become addicted to substances than to wait for months or years.

5. Helping everyone who is addicted would cost a fraction of what we area already spending on our current system. We would save billions of dollars. Far more important, the damage to their lives, the lives of their family, would be minimized by early intervention. The loss of life from overdoses and the loss of life in other countries who now are producing these drugs to satisfy American demand would be eventually eliminated. It would not happen for years….but at least we would be moving toward that day.


6. There would be some immediate effects. First, some of the millions currently addicted to drugs would be able to get into treatment programs if they were made widely available. They would no longer need to rob or swindle or steal to support their habit. They would not wind up in prison for these activities if they could obtain treatment with methadone or other medications and support by psychological or psychiatric professionals.

7. Felony penalties would still apply to anyone who produces, transports, or sells illicit substances. More severe felony penalties, as in the case of the sale of alcohol to minors, would apply to anyone who is involved in production or provision of any illicit substance to minors.

The War On Drugs is the longest war that the United States has ever fought. There are enormous casualties of every kind. It has been a colossal failure and an unprecedented waste of resources.

Until the people of the United States demand that these changes be discussed and considered, they will not be initiated. Please pick up a pen or a phone or send an email to those who can do this…the President, the Senators, the Congressmen in our country. Do it today. A life close to you may depend on it.


The 18th Ammendment to the Constitution banned the use of alcohol.


The 21st Ammendment to the Constitution removing the ban on alcohol.