Drug Legislation is Playing Russian Roulette | Center on Addiction

Drug Legislation is Playing Russian Roulette

Drug Legislation is Playing Russian Roulette

August 16, 2007

By Joseph A. Califano, Jr.

Willem Buiter's proposal on these pages last week for the European Union (and the world) to legalize all drugs, including heroin and cocaine, is a one-way ticket to destroying millions of children, increasing violent crime and pushing up health care costs.

Like most legalization buffs, Professor Buiter suggests a regulated system where access to drugs would be prohibited for minors. Our experience with laws restricting access by children and adolescents to tobacco and alcohol makes it clear that keeping legal drugs away from minors would be an impossible dream. Teen smoking and drinking are at epidemic levels in the U.S. and across much of the European continent. In Great Britain, keeping bars open has led to an explosion of drunkenness among teens so widespread that the government is likely to return to limited hours for pubs.

Today, the US has some 60 million regular smokers, up to 20 million alcoholics and alcohol abusers and about 6 million illegal drug addicts. Experts such as Columbia University's Herbert Kleber believe that, with legalization, the number of cocaine addicts alone could leapfrog beyond the number of alcoholics. The experience of European nations that have tried various shades of legalization bears him out.

Switzerland's "Needle Park", touted as a way to restrict a few hundred heroin users to a small area, turned into a grotesque tourist attraction of 20,000 heroin addicts and junkies. It had to be closed before it infected the entire city of Zurich.

In the Netherlands, anyone over the age of 17 can drop into a marijuana "coffee shop" and pick types of marijuana just as they might choose flavors of ice-cream. As crime and the availability of drugs rose, and complaints from angry residents about the decline in their quality of life multiplied, the Dutch parliament trimmed back the number of marijuana shops in Amsterdam and the amount that can be sold to an individual.

Under decriminalization in Italy, possession of a few doses of drugs such as heroin has generally been exempt from criminal sanction. Today, Italy has about 200,000 addicts, the highest rate of heroin addiction in Europe. Most AIDS cases in Italy are attributable to drug use. England's foray into allowing any doctor to prescribe heroin was curbed as heroin use increased. Professor Buiter would have legalization occur across all of Europe so there are no countries that are enclaves of drug use. In other words, if you like what's happened in Switzerland, the Netherlands and Italy, you'll love legalization across the European Union.

Easy availability of drugs will increase criminal activity. Most violent crimes, such as murders, assaults and rapes, occur when the perpetrator is high or drunk, and much of property crime involves people seeking money to buy drugs. In the U.S., half the beds in most hospitals are filled with people sick or injured as a result of drug use, drinking and smoking.

Professor Buiter promotes "our cigarette manufacturers, [as] well-positioned to enter this trade" of selling heroin, cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine and designer drugs such as ecstasy. Talk about letting the fox loose in the chicken coop! For decades the nicotine pushers like RJ Reynolds, Brown and Williamson and Philip Morris have been hawking their wares to kids. 20 years ago the cigarette company Reynolds Tobacco (RJR) created a cartoon character called Joe Camel and so heavily promoted him that more children recognized him than Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse.

Only after years of complaints from public health advocates and parents, and the threat of legal action by the Federal Trade Commission, did RJR shut down its Joe Camel campaign. RJR tried to push candy-flavored cigarettes that mask the harshness of natural tobacco for young first-time users.

Does the world want to create a Philip Morris for weed? An RJR for cocaine? Do we want cigarette companies that by their own admission seek "replacement smokers" for those who die or quit smoking, seeking "replacement drug addicts" for those who shake their habit?

There is no basis to assume that cigarette companies will take a different approach when selling drugs. After all, these are the guys who continue to promote a product that, when used as intended, kills and maims millions of people across the world.

Professor Buiter touts taxes on the sale of illegal drugs as a great source of revenue for public purposes. This blithely ignores the history of tenacious opposition to tax increases that has marked the tobacco and alcohol companies. As a result, taxes collected on the sale of these products cover only a small fraction of the costs in health care and criminal justice attributable to smoking and drinking.

Legalization assures greater availability, and availability is the mother of use. That poses a clear and present danger to our children. Research at CASAColumbia at Columbia University has found that an individual who gets to the age of 21 without smoking, using drugs or abusing alcohol is virtually certain never to do so. Every drug-dealer, cigarette manufacturer and spirits company knows this - and acts on it. Viewed from this perspective, substance abuse and addiction are diseases typically acquired during childhood and adolescence.

Today most kids do not use illicit drugs, but all of them, particularly the poorest, are vulnerable to abuse and addiction. Russian roulette is not a game anyone should play. Legalizing drugs is not only playing Russian roulette with children, it is slipping a couple of extra bullets into the chamber.

The writer is Chairman and President of CASAColumbia at Columbia University, and author of High Society: How Substance Abuse Ravages America and What to Do About It. He was U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare from 1977 to 1979.

Appeared in Financial Times on August 16, 2007


Media Specialist

(212) 841.5206 ​



Communications and Digital Associate

(212) 841.5206 



Director of Digital Communications

(212) 841.5225


Newsletter Additional Information

Newsletter Additional Information

Thank you for subscribing

This information will be used to better customize your experience and help inform future tools and features on our website.

Additional Information
What brought you to our website?