Drug Policy

Trey Radel, Rob Ford Should Make Us Ask: Why Exactly is Snorting Coke Worse Than Drinking Booze?

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When conservative Florida Rep. Trey Radel got busted for cocaine possession, he made the right move from a legal and p.r. point of view. He pleaded guilty and announced he was entering rehab. He was more honest than most, though, in that he acknowledged his real substance abuse problem was with alcohol. Indeed, he told the press that his buying cocaine was an effect of his drinking problem.

Writing at Time.com earlier this week, I noted the recent case of Radel and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford—who was long known for drunken oafishness but only really got in trouble when it turned out he'd also smoked crack—and asked the question, "What's wrong with casual drug use?"

Given that two states have already legalized pot beyond the medical variety (with more sure to follow), it's a question whose time has come. We should be focused less on what sorts of intoxicants people use and more on how they act when under the influence. Cocaine and even heroin are not "addictive" in any obvious way. Most people who try them never try them again and even those who use regularly are not enslaved by them. A landmark study of returning Vietnam vets in the early '70s found that even heroin addicts mostly dropped their habits when they came back stateside, even though they were able to find junk easily and many tried it after coming home without falling back into dependency:

As my Reason colleague Jacob Sullum has documented, such take-it-or-leave-it findings are common in drug research. In his 2004 book Saying Yes and other places, he's detailed work in which researchers find a surprising range among heroin users, including a study that concluded, "It seems possible for young people from a number of different backgrounds, family patterns and educational abilities to use heroin occasionally without becoming addicted."

It's also true that regular drug users can often function quite well. Sigmund Freud used cocaine habitually for years, and his first major scientific publication was about the wonders of the drug (he eventually forsook it). Another pioneering late 19th and early 20th century man of medicine, William Halsted, was dependent on cocaine and morphine during an illustrious career that revolutionized and modernized surgical techniques.

None of this is a brief for snorting cocaine, shooting heroin or smoking marijuana (a substance that 58% of Americans think should be legal for recreational use) any more than it is a plea for drinking single-malt whiskey or pinot noir.

But in an age in which we are expected to use legal drugs (like beer) and prescription medications (Adderall) responsibly, it's time to extend that same notion to currently illegal substances whose effects and properties are widely misunderstood. Indeed, the effects of coke, heroin and the rest are a mystery partly because their outlaw status makes it difficult both to research them and have honest discussions about them.

Read the whole Time story here.

What do you think? Are certain substances so inherently addictive that they must be banned? Or should the proper scope of policy be focused on behaviors?