THE BLOG
09/29/2015 05:03 pm ET Updated Sep 28, 2016

Prohibition Is the Real "Gateway Drug"

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Drug warriors claim that marijuana is a "gateway drug." On the contrary, it is the policy of drug prohibition--not the drug per se--that creates a gateway into a criminal underworld of crime and contaminated products.

This was brought home by a recent study showing a correlation between alcohol prohibition and meth use by county. When people want a substance that is prohibited, their only option is to turn to criminals who can supply it. This entree into the criminal world becomes a gateway to other illegal--and often more dangerous--activities and substances.

Turning to a criminal underground results in otherwise law-abiding citizens crossing that societal boundary between the legal and the illegal. Besides generally promoting disrespect for law, it gives buyers a level of comfort in a world outside the law.

Criminal organizations have no reason to check ID. Why should they? It's no more illegal to sell to minors than to adults. A criminal enterprise also has no reason to ensure purity, or grade and label potency. Why bother? The product is equally illegal whether it is pure heroin or cut with Fentanyl. A customer who gets a bad product has no recourse--and may in fact end up dead. Survivors can't report problems to the FDA or a consumer protection bureau so there is no removal of bad dealers over time.

Once the customer has entered the "shop," there is every incentive to upsell to higher margin products. The customer who comes to a Honda dealership asking for a Civic might be encouraged by a rational dealer to look at the Accord. A customer asking for marijuana might rationally be encouraged to try heroin or cocaine or meth.

In the criminal world, conversations about the risks of marijuana for developing brains or the risks of heroin for everyone do not take place. Only in a legal regulated environment can such honest (as opposed to "Reefer Madness" style) educational efforts occur.

Of course, in theory, people could protect themselves by never using any mind-altering substances, but that is not a realistic expectation. Cats are attracted to catnip. As a species, human are built to seek out substances that provide relaxation or alter mood or consciousness. If there is any substance on the planet that can be smoked, brewed, distilled, fermented or ingested to produce an effect, it has been tried. This is not a new trend. Archaeological evidence shows that beer was brewed 11,000 years ago. In order to have a drug- (and alcohol-) free world, we would have to eliminate not only coca, opium poppy and marijuana, but wheat, barley, rice, potatoes, fruit and juniper berries.

Instead of making policy predicated on the assumption that humans are perfectible and that we can achieve a drug-free America, it's far better to acknowledge who we are as a species, and develop ways to manage these problematic substances--and legalization is a prerequisite for regulation. Stop using the criminal law in a futile attempt to prevent drug use.

Instead, legalize, regulate, educate and manage all drugs. This isn't an off the wall suggestion. Switzerland decriminalized heroin in 1994, resulting in dramatic drops in deaths, HIV and Hepatitis transmission, crime and social recruitment of young people. Portugal decriminalized all drugs in 2001 with similar success.

Let's save all the money now spent on drug arrests, prosecution and incarceration. Prosecute only underage sales. Put the money into improving schools that will put students on the path to real jobs. Put resources into finding out why so many Americans have intractable pain that requires Oxycodone--and ultimately heroin when they can no longer afford or obtain their prescriptions.

Stop the failed policy of prohibition. Close that gateway to the criminal underworld.