Legalize Drugs?!

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[This Commentary originally appeared in the October 5, 1989 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]

CarosaCommentaryNewLogo_259In a recent CBS-New York Times survey, 64% of the respondents named drugs as the nation’s top problem. The high degree of attention currently being paid to our country’s drug epidemic may be due to President Bush’s initiatives of just about a month ago. (A similar poll taken last July revealed only 22% of the people claimed drugs to be the nation’s number one plight.)

With all the political news coming from Washington D.C. and the war stories emanating from Columbia, the issue of uncontrolled use of controlled substances has supplanted the HUD scandal as the most talked about controversy in America. With such broad discussion comes many competing ideas. One has ominously received considered notice: the case for legalizing drugs.

In a 1988 Gallup poll, 20% of those questioned favored legalizing drugs in one form or another. Just a few weeks ago, in an unscientific survey, PRODIGYSM, (Sears’ new videotext venture), found a full 27% of those people responding to their survey desiring to legalize drugs.

What prompted such talk? Some people have apparently thrown in the towel. They see the drug problem as unsolvable. In the same way we repealed prohibition, they advocate we remove from the books all laws limiting drug use. They have pointed out our legal enforcement system cannot even control the use of illicit narcotics in prisons.

Some use the economic argument, stating government tax receipts will skyrocket once drugs become part of the legitimate economy. Along the same lines, it is believed legalizing drugs will remove the modus operandi of many of our nation’s criminals.

Still others are more charitable (in an attempt no doubt to straddle both sides of the issue). They see drugs as a medical/social issue; hence, they would like to have those experts (not legislators or police) attack the problem. In addition, they have a greater willingness to legalize “softer” drugs than the more dangerous kinds.

Most of these people fail to consider two things. Folks like William Buckley, America’s preeminent conservative voice, favor the legalization of drugs mainly for libertarian reasons. Remember, libertarians place a lot of credence on liberty, especially the part about free will. The rather eloquent logic associated with this particular argument especially attracts the sophisticated crowd. Indeed, the claim seems invincible save for one thing – morality.

Free will implies generic rights for all humans. One usually employs the term when attempting to justify decreased regulation (by government, university administrations, parents, etc…). With these rights, however, go certain responsibilities. While it remains true one should control one’s own destiny, no absolute individual right subsists which permits one to infringe on another individual’s rights. For example, people have the right to raise their own children, but they do not have a right to abuse their own (or anybody else’s) children.

If it is true drugs (as with other addictions) have a consistent debilitating effect on their users (we shall show this to be true in a moment), then we cannot morally condone the legalization of such substances. An individual has a right to lead any kind of life within society. With that right exists the responsibility, given the choice, to be a willingly productive member of society.

In addition to ethics, most drug legalization proponents neglect to do the least bit of historic research. If they did, they would find cocaine – America’s recreational drug of choice – was legally available for nearly five decades and one can trace its usage to pre-Columbian roots.

Over the centuries, South American Indians ate coca leaves to dispel feelings of fatigue and hunger. First isolated in 1855, cocaine was recognized as an anesthetic in 1860 and recommended for clinical use in 1879. During the next 50 years, dentists and surgeons used cocaine as a local anesthetic (Novocain eventually displaced the more toxic cocaine.)

Indeed, in its early years, doctors championed the use of cocaine over morphine and other opiates (which had serious side-effects, not the least of which being life-threatening addiction). Sigmund Freud once wrote that cocaine “wards off hunger, sleep, and fatigue and steels one to intellectual effort.” (On Coca, 1884) In that essay, Freud states he had tested the effects of the drug “some dozen times on myself.”

The American establishment itself embraced cocaine, going so far as to say “One feels like trying coca, with or without the opium habit. A harmless remedy for the blues is imperial.” (Dr. W.H. Bently Therapeutic Gazette, 1880) By the 1880s, cocaine had become a popular consumer good. Such dignitaries as Pope Leo XIII and Thomas Edison endorsed products derived from cocaine. Ulysses S. Grant even used it once a day during the illness he had while writing Memoirs.

Yes, Coca-Cola included a small amount of cocaine, though caffeine replaced the narcotic in 1903. By the early 1900s cocaine manufacturing peaked and the public awareness of the drug’s not-so-good effect had spread. Many doctors became cocaine addicts and died from excessive use. Even Sigmund Freud, who had watched his good friend perish from its effects, changed his mind on the benefit of the stimulant.

In 1909, the New York Times published “The Growing Menace of Cocaine” and in 1910, President William Howard Taft cited it as the nation’s top problem. “Super criminals,” made “invulnerable” by the effects of cocaine, worried southern police officers so much they switched to higher caliber hand guns. In 1915, with much public sentiment behind it, Congress passed the Harrison Act, tightly regulating the sale and distribution of drugs.

David Musto, in the Summer 1989 issue of Wilson Quarterly, maintains that cocaine became increasingly unpopular during the Jazz age. Both peer pressure and fear of arrest drove the drug underground. Use ultimately dropped to a mere trickle as an economically depressed nation helped lambast the drug. “I get no kick from cocaine,” wrote Cole Porter (Anything Goes).

Unfortunately, asserts Musto, a professor of psychiatry and history of medicine at the Yale Medical School, many people have forgotten cocaine’s “notorious reputation.” One would hope advocates of legalizing drugs might refresh themselves on the history of cocaine before promoting a potentially disastrous cause.

Our local Rotary clubs (that’s the Lima and Honeoye Falls Rotary Clubs) this year created a foundation to help alleviate the problems of drugs and alcohol in our own community. If you wish to undertake a project aimed at the drug and alcohol problem, and are in need of funds, please write:

Tee-Off Against Drugs Foundation
c/o Honeoye Falls Rotary
P.O. Box 220
Honeoye Falls, New York  14472

Last Week #28: Outfitting Today’s Athlete (originally published September 28, 1989)
Next Week #30: Faces of the Week (originally published October 12, 1989)

[What is this and why is here? See Interested in Discovering My Time Machine? for more details.]


  1. Chris Carosa says

    Author’s Comment: This article has three interesting aspects to it. First – and perhaps most obvious – is the theme itself. Even today we find ourselves revisiting the question of legalizing certain narcotics (in the current environment, it’s California legalizing marijuana). The lessons of cocaine in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century seem to have passed with the generations. There’s a lot of interesting trivia here, and a handful of (older) readers in 1989 actually recalled it.

    The second part of this essay that might interest you concerns the (hopefully) seamless weaving of a national topic into a local topic. At the time, like any good newspaper publisher, I regularly attended meetings of the local Rotary club (as well as the Chamber of Commerce, too). This Commentary pays homage to those civic doings with a direct appeal to the reader on behalf of (what turned out to be very popular) local cause.

    Finally, and if you’ve read this closely, you’ll detect my (extremely) early involvement with the internet. It wasn’t really called “the internet” back then and, strictly speaking, although Prodigy offered e-mail and networked services, it really didn’t connect to the World Wide Web until it became an ISP in 1994. Of course, as internet aficionados recall, Prodigy blew it the year before by moving from a flat rate fee schedule to an hourly rate, thereby losing tens of thousands of customers. The legacy of the brand still exists despite the fact its current owner – AT&T – no longer markets it.

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