The 13th Step

Even some drug war opponents buy into its lies.

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Though the overall percentages have changed from year to year (they are down sharply from 20 years ago), the basic pattern of youthful drug use giving way to middle-aged sobriety doesn't vary, strongly suggesting what those of us who have used drugs on a recreational basis know to be true: The overwhelming majority of people who choose to do drugs do less of them as they get older, work longer hours, take on more responsibility, and the like. Not surprisingly, the same pattern holds for rates of "heavy drinking"-defined as "drinking five or more drinks on the same occasion on each of 5 or more days in the past 30 days."

Far from our drugs controlling us, by and large we control our drugs; as with alcohol, the primary motivation in taking drugs is to enjoy ourselves, not to destroy ourselves. Though cultural artifacts such as Traffic fail to acknowledge it, much less represent it, there is such a thing as responsible drug use and it is the rule, not the exception. (Even heroin, legendary for its purported addictive properties, does not turn its users into zombies. Though there are no definitive figures on the matter, a widely cited 1976 study found that only 10 percent of heroin users could properly be classified as addicts.)

This is no small matter: The popular front that has long supported the drug war-and its annual $37 billion price tag at the local, state, and federal levels-is beginning to crack. The generally positive response to Traffic reflects this, as does the ease with which medical marijuana ballot initiatives pass and the willingness with which politicians ranging from New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson to the members of the Congressional Black Caucus openly criticize national drug policy.

The debate over drug policy is clearly at an inflection point. But ending the current version of the drug war, with its emphasis on interdiction, law enforcement, and imprisonment, isn't synonymous with the end of prohibition or with drug legalization. That case still needs to be made, perhaps now more than ever.

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