Nevada's unfortunate drug initiative

The good citizens of Nevada are about to make a decision which, if they vote the wrong way, has risky consequences for their state, and possibly significant consequences for the country at large.

They are being asked to vote on a ballot initiative which would legalize the possession of marijuana.

Nevada already has legalized gambling and prostitution, and the state legislature moved last year to decriminalize marijuana, making possession of an ounce or less of the drug a misdemeanor instead of a felony. Now the pro-marijuana forces want to go the extra step, from decriminalization to legalization.

Fortunately, the outcome is not foregone. Though voters earlier this year seemed to be evenly split on the issue, latest polls suggest the opponents of the proposal are gaining ground over the supporters. The shift comes after a major outcry against the proposal from law-enforcement officers.

If the pro-pot forces prevail, it would set a bad precedent for other American states and undercut US international drug interdiction efforts. How can Washington prevail on other countries to crack down on drug shipments to the US if a hitherto illegal drug like marijuana is now legal within US borders?

Much of the drug flow comes from Mexico and the south. But even such a usually intelligent country as Canada is considering decriminalizing marijuana. That sends shivers up the spines of drug-enforcement officials in Washington. The Bush administration's drug czar, John Walters, hopes the Canadian government "does not head down the risky path of decriminalization or legalization." The US, he says, has learned through hard experience that marijuana is a dangerous drug with serious public health and social consequences.

Indeed, decriminalization of marijuana in Canada could lead US lawmakers to tighten border controls. Indiana Republican Representative Mark Souder told the Toronto Globe and Mail last week it would likely cause the Bush administration and Congress to take tougher measures to prevent illegal drugs moving from Canada into the US. That might slow down border traffic. Souder is chairman of the House subcommittee on criminal justice, drug policy, and human resources.

The pro-marijuana forces will of course scoff at all this, suggesting that marijuana is merely a "recreational" drug without harmful effects, and does nothing like the damage inflicted by heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and the new range of synthetic drugs used at "rave" parties that now go beyond Ecstasy to include DXM, AMT, 2-CB, ketamine, Oxy-Contin, and nitrous oxide.

I have a special point of view about all this, for some 30 years ago as a correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, I was dispatched on a major investigation of international narcotics traffic. For five months I traveled around the world, probing the seedy world of drug production, trafficking, and use. I checked out illegal opium production in Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Thailand, and heroin labs in Marseilles and Mexico. I could have bought cocaine in Beirut and heroin in Hong Kong. I could have bought hashish and marijuana as easily as toothpaste throughout much of Asia, the Middle East, and parts of Mexico. Marijuana grew untended like a weed in dozens of countries.

The ultimate end of drug usage was often widespread misery. It ranged from family breakups, to suicide, to American hippies found guilty of drug possession and tossed into Middle Eastern jails that were such hellholes that they bribed their way into mental institutions for better treatment.

In the course of this investigation I worked with many longtime drug enforcement agents. One of the most chilling comments came from one undercover US agent in Lebanon. "I can't say that everyone who starts on marijuana ends up on the hard stuff," he told me. "But I can say that in all my years in this work, I never met an addict on the hard stuff who didn't start on pot."

I wound up my investigation in Geneva, talking to a seasoned narcotics expert at the European headquarters of the United Nations. "Programs to cut back drugs are important, but this is cops-and-robbers stuff," he said reflectively. "It all ends up with the user, the addict." The crux of the problem, he suggested, was the education and regeneration of the user – and perhaps of the society that contributes to the user's degradation.

Thirty years later, I am not cheered by the progress we have made in this area. It would be too bad if a state like Nevada makes a decision that endorses, rather than discourages, drug usage.

• John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News, is a former editor of the Monitor.

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