Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs

The Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs

by Edward M. Brecher and the Editors of Consumer Reports Magazine, 1972

Part X 

Conclusions and Recommendations



Chapter 68. Learning from past mistakes: six caveats 

This nation's drug laws and policies have not been working well; on that simple statement almost all Americans seem agreed. During the fifty seven years since passage of the Harrison Narcotic Act, heroin has become a national menace; its use has even spread to the middle class and the suburbs. After a third of a century of escalating penalties against marijuana and of antimarijuana propaganda, marijuana has reached an unprecedented peak of popularity. After a decade of agitation and legislation, LSD–– a drug few people had even heard of before 1962–– is now known universally and used by hundreds of thousands, even high-school students. The barbiturates, which a generation ago were thought of as sedatives, useful for calming and for sleep, have become "thrill drugs." So have the amphetamines, once used mainly to enable people to work longer hours at hard jobs.

These changes, clearly, are not the result of changes in the chemical composition of the drugs. They are the result of mistaken laws and policies, of mistaken attitudes toward drugs, and of futile, however well intentioned, efforts to , stamp out the drug menace." This Consumers Union Report, accordingly, has been only partly concerned with the "drug problem." Large portions of our work have focused instead on what Dr. Helen Nowlis has aptly called "the  drug problem problem" –– the damage that results from the ways in which society has approached the drug problem.

To summarize here the entire contents of this Report would be an impossible undertaking. We therefore present instead a series of brief reminders of some of the central themes developed earlier, plus drug-by-drug recommendations growing out of those themes.

Our recommendations are not intended as a blueprint for solving overnight either "the drug problem" or "the  drug problem problem." Rather, each proposal is put forward as an approach worthy of consideration and trial. As the drug scene changes, new recommendations will no doubt be called for. Consumers Union expects to report such changes and to make additional recommendations in the pages of  Consumer Reports. 

Mistakes in drug laws, policies, and attitudes are discussed and documented throughout this Report. Among the steps which might correct them, we suggest the following.

(1) Stop emphasizing measures designed to keep drugs away from people.
–– trying to keep drugs away from people–– began with the enforcement of the 1914 Harrison Narcotic Act, and it has remained the dominant theme of both antidrug legislation and antidrug propaganda ever since.

Prohibition does not work. As the United States learned from 1920 to 1933, it didn't work with alcohol. As the country has been learning since 1914, it doesn't work with heroin. It isn't working today with marijuana, LSD, or any of the other illicit drugs. Nor is prohibition likely to prove more effective in the future.

What prohibition does accomplish is to raise prices and thus to attract more entrepreneurs to the black market. If the drug is addicting and the price escalation is carried to outrageous extremes (as in the case of heroin), addicts resort to crime to finance their purchases–– at a tragic cost, not only in dollars but in community disruption.

What prohibition also achieves is to convert the market from relatively bland, bulky substances to more hazardous concentrates which are more readily smugglable and marketable–– from opium smoking to heroin mainlining, from coca leaves to cocaine, from marijuana to hashish.

Again, prohibition opens the door to adulterated and contaminated drugs–– methyl alcohol, "ginger jake," pseudo-LSD, adulterated heroin.

Worst of all, excessive reliance on prohibition, on laws and law enforcement, lulls the country decade after decade into a false confidence that nothing more need be done–– except to pass yet another law, or to hire a few hundred more narcotics agents, or to license the agents to break down doors without knocking first, and so on.

This is not, obviously, a justification for repealing  all drug laws tomorrow. A nation that has not learned to keep away from some drugs and to use others wisely cannot be taught those essential lessons merely by repealing drug laws. What is needed in the legal arena are two fresh insights: 

Physicians have a maxim:  Nihil nocere. It means that a physician must guard against doing more harm than good. A  nihil nocere guideline is needed for drug laws and law enforcement. A law-enforcement policy that converts marijuana smokers into LSD or heroin users (see chart on Page 442), to cite an obvious example, should be abandoned. The same is true of a law that turns marijuana smokers into convicts and ex-convicts, with all that the prison experience and the prison record implies. Nor can much be said in favor of a law-enforcement policy that results in raising the price of a nickel's worth of heroin to five dollars–– with the further result that addicts must steal vast amounts in order to buy their heroin. 

A complete revision of laws and enforcement policies in the spirit of the  nihil nocere principle is called for. Laws and law enforcement cannot solve the drug problem–– they should not be allowed to exacerbate it.

A realistic understanding of what laws can and cannot do is needed. Laws cannot work miracles. They cannot, for example, keep heroin away from heroin addicts, nor marijuana away from marijuana smokers. The most laws can do in these cases is to punish and to alienate. Accordingly, laws and enforcement policies should be revised to concentrate on  achievable goals. For example, in countries where heroin addicts do not have to patronize and support a black market, law-enforcement efforts can be directed solely toward curbing the flow of heroin to  nonaddicts. Surely this is the essential goal. 

In sum, valuable resources and energies should no longer be wasted chasing prohibition will-o'-the-wisps, Those goals that cannot be achieved by law enforcement should be assigned to other instrumentalities such as education and social reform.

(2) Stop publicizing the horrors of the "drug menace."
Scare publicity has been the second cornerstone of national policy, along with law enforcement, since 1914. The effort to frighten people away from illicit drugs has publicized and thus popularized the drugs attacked. The impact on young eyes and ears of the constant drumming of drug news stories and antidrug messages is clearly discernible
–– just look around. * 

* Ken Sobol wrote in the  New York Village Voice, October 21, 1971: "in the past week we were entertained [on television] by seven dope discussion/documentaries, a dope agony ballet, two dope poetry readings, innumerable anti-dope commercials, and three dramatic series shows centering around junkies. Not to mention Rona Barrett revealing Hollywood's latest hophead horror, a variety show host wittily confusing grass and grass, Jim Jensen crackling gravely as he narrated the [New York Police Department's] 'biggest raid of the week' bit, LeRoi Jones accusing the Pope of dealing, and countless other pieces of programs. Reds, greens, tips, downs, agony, ecstasy, sniff, smoke, mainline, degradation, or rehabilitation–– you name it, we had it, as usual.

"All of these items began with the assumption that since dope is an evil, its horrors must be portrayed as graphically as possible in order to educate the viewer. But the question which nobody seems to ask is just what is being taught by all this electronic moralizing–– that drugs are bad, or that  Dope Is Exciting! Like everything else on tv, dope 'education' is show biz. And like all show biz, it is glamorous form first, content second. One National Football League anti-drug spot begins with exciting field action, while up tempo, big band jazz blares over. Then, as the music recedes, the camera picks out one player smashing an opposing ballcarrier and we hear his voice over: 'This is Mike Reid That's the way I like to crack down. I'd like to rack up the drug traffic, too.' Up jazz , building to crash climax. it's all groovy sounds and fast action, only slightly interrupted by some rich jock's [anti-drug comments]. Wham, bam, dope, man! Dope is so exciting that even the anti-dope swings.

"That impression is enhanced by the fact that only beautiful, vibrant people turn to drugs on entertainment tv. Last Friday, for one example, among many, the 'D.A.,' a new NBC law and order hour, had a show about a junkie witness. She was, of course, young, beautiful, intelligent, and paying for her mistakes. Decadence sells better than ever these days. It makes people romantically exciting, cool, tragic and  plugged in–– beautiful people, that is.

"Even documentary dope can be a gas. In Frederick Wiseman's 'Hospital,' shown last week on NET, a long sequence (which I am pulling out of context) shows a badtripping teenaged boy in the emergency room. He screams, moans, shakes, crawls in his own puke, begs the doctors not to let him die. All genuine, all riveting. Yet at the same time completely unreal, because the tv screen automatically distances us and makes it a performance–– a show about a kid connecting with life in the rawest, most primal way. And again, I think that what may remain in the mind from it is the Generalized excitement of that elemental connection, rather than its individual real-life horror. Because tv is not real life, and while it is surprisingly easy to ignore some one else's horror on film, it is no trick at all to get excited by it.

"So there you are. A small piece of last week's junk action . Next week there will be more of the same, and more the week after, and so on, until we have theoretically been 'educated' or frightened off dope–– or on to it. Because if McLuhan is at all right, then some people are going about this all wrong. Maybe there is no right way to treat dope on television as it is presently constituted, but I wish to hell someone in a foundation or school somewhere would at least sit down and worry about it."


As shown throughout this Report, sensationalist publicity is not only ineffective but counterproductive. Both the peril and the warning function as lures. At the same time, the antidrug campaigns have inflamed the hostile emotions of many non-drug users, making it harder to win support for calm, rational, nonpunitive,  effective drug policies.

(3) Stop increasing the damage done by drugs. 
Current drug laws and policies make drugs more rather than less damaging in many ways. The alleged justification for this is, of course, to  deter people from using drugs. Thus, the sale or possession of hypodermic needles without prescription is a criminal offense–– a policy which leads to the use of nonsterile needles, to the sharing of needles, and to epidemics of hepatitis and other crippling, sometimes fatal, needle-borne diseases. Contaminated and adulterated illicit drugs circulate as freely as pure illicit drugs, with no greater penalty for selling them and no effective system for warning users against them. Only trifling efforts are made to find and eliminate the cause of the hundreds of deaths each year among heroin mainliners–– deaths falsely attributed to "overdose." The establishment of methadone maintenance programs for heroin addicts is resisted and delayed in part because some people  want heroin addiction to lead to disaster–– as a deterrent to others. Loss of employment, expulsion from school, and exclusion from respectable society similarly serve to increase the damage done by drugs–– and over all of the other penalties hovers society's ultimate sanction, imprisonment, the most damaging of all consequences of illicit drug use.

These and other drug laws and policies have succeeded in making drug use more damaging in the United States than in other countries, and vastly more damaging today than in the United States of a century ago (see Chapter 1). But as deterrents against drug use, these policies clearly have failed.  

Accordingly, future efforts should be directed toward minimizing the damage done by drugs. A substantial part of that damage stems not from the chemistry of the drugs but from the ignorant and imprudent ways in which they are used, the settings in which they are used, the laws punishing their use, society's attitudes toward users, and so on. Once a policy of minimizing damage is adopted and conscientiously pursued, a substantial part of the "drug menace" will be eliminated–– even though many people may continue to use drugs.

The choice is clear: to continue trying, ineffectively, to stamp out illicit drug use by making–– it as damaging as possible, or to seek to minimize the damage done by drugs, licit and illicit alike. * 

* The first faint harbingers of a trend toward lessening drug damage are beginning to appear. Some people who thought a few years ago that imprisonment or death was good enough for "drug fiends" whose skin color was different or who lived in another part of town have begun to change their minds as they realize that the users of illicit drugs include their own children. Actions by both Congress and a number of state legislatures to reduce marijuana possession penalties in 1970 and 1971 were straws in this breeze of change. The concern expressed in 1971 for veterans returning from Vietnam addicted to heroin was another straw. The problem of minimizing the damage done by licit drugs, such as nicotine and alcohol, also attracted Congressional attention in 1970 and 1971; cigarette advertising was banned from television and new alcoholism treatment and research programs were authorized. Several states repealed their laws making public drunkenness a crime punishable by imprisonment. 

(4) Stop misclassifying drugs.
Misclassification lies close to the heart of the drug problem, for what teachers tell students about a drug, and how judges sentence drug-law violators, both depend on how the drug is classified. Most official and unofficial classifications of drugs are illogical and capricious; they therefore make a mockery of drug-law enforcement and bring drug education into disrepute.

A major error of the current drug classification system is that it treats alcohol and nicotine–– two of the most harmful drugs–– essentially as nondrugs. ** Equating marijuana with heroin is a second shocking example for it helps to encourage the switch from marijuana to heroin.  

** Some young people, baffled by the illogic, have concluded that corrupt legislators must have adopted the classifications to protect the tobacco and alcohol industries. Such distrust is perhaps understandable, though ignorance rather than venality seems the more likely explanation. The fact remains, however, that a significant part of American agriculture and industry is engaged, with government support, in the production and marketing of nicotine and alcohol products. 

The entire jerry-built structure of official drug classification rests on a series of Congressional enactments beginning in 1914 and reaching a climax in the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. The misclassifications built into this Act were not the results of scientific study but represented compromises between Senate and House committees, between Republican and Democratic legislators, between Congress and the Nixon administration. Worse yet, the Act authorizes the  Attorney General of the United States to alter the classifications from time to time. Yet judges are bound by this political rather than scientific system of classification in assessing penalties; and educational programs generally take their cue from the official classification.

Propaganda programs contribute to the classification chaos in another way; they accent the distinction between licit and illicit drugs, while failing to draw distinctions between more hazardous and less hazardous illicit drugs. The result is to facilitate the use of the more hazardous illicit drugs.

A sound classification program should concern itself with modes of drug use as well as drugs themselves; it should recognize, for example, the vast difference between sniffing, smoking, or swallowing a drug and mainlining it. Society, laws, and law-enforcement policies already differentiate the occasional drinker of a glass of wine or beer, the social drinker, the problem drinker, the spree drinker, the chronic drunk, and the alcoholic. Similar distinctions should be made with respect to various modes of use of marijuana, LSD, the barbiturates, and the amphetamines. It is one thing to get stoned on marijuana on Saturday night; it is quite another to stay stoned all day every day. A sensible drug classification program would not only recognize but stress the difference.

Once a reasonable approach is adopted to the classification of drugs and modes of drug use, educators can begin to plan a believable program of drug education, based on truth–– on what is known and not known. Such a program will be confirmed by what young people see around them, and by what they experience if and when they try drugs themselves. It will therefore no longer bring down ridicule and disrepute upon the whole concept of drug education. Until drugs are sensibly reclassified, no amount of public-relations expertise will restore credibility to governmental, medical, and educational drug pronouncements.

(5) Stop viewing the drug problem as primarily a national problem, to be solved on a national scale.
In fact, as workers in the drug scene confirm, the "drug problem" is a collection of local problems. The predominant drugs differ from place to place and from time to time. Effective solutions to problems also vary; a plan that works now for New York City may not be applicable to upstate New York and vice versa. With respect to education and propaganda, the need for local wisdom and local control is particularly pressing. Warning children against drugs readily available to them is a risky business at best, requiring careful, truthful, unsensational approaches. Warning children against drugs used elsewhere, of which they may never have heard, can be like warning them against putting beans in their ears. The role of anti-glue-sniffing warnings in popularizing gluesniffing (see Chapter 44) is the most striking of many examples.

The errors in drug policy under review here are also generalizations that may or may not be relevant in a particular community. An essential preliminary step in any local drug education program should be to identify the errors in policy currently being committed  locally–– and, if possible, to correct them locally.

(6) Stop pursuing the goal of stamping out illicit drug use.
If, in 1937, efforts had been undertaken to reduce marijuana smoking over a period of years rather than to try to eradicate it immediately, such a program might well have succeeded. Instead, one of the greatest drug explosions in history
–– the marijuana eruption of the 1960s–– was triggered (see Part VIII).

Attempts to stamp out illicit drug use tend to increase both drug use and drug damage. Here LSD is the prime example (see Part VII).

Finally, as we have shown, efforts to stamp out one drug shift users to another–– from marijuana to LSD and heroin, from heroin to alcohol.  

These, then, are the major mistakes in drug policy as we see them. This Consumers Union Report contains no panaceas for resolving them. But getting to work at correcting these six errors, promptly and ungrudgingly, would surely be a major step in the right direction.



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