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Drug-Control Policy in the United States

Few personal acts more closely implicate the life and dignity of the human person than deciding what to put into one’s own body. Choices of food and medicine are largely left to individuals, not government. Similarly, most decisions to alter one’s mental and physical states are vested in individuals, not politicians, hence the almost universal use of caffeine and alcohol. Despite laws imposing some limits on the use of these substances, as well as tobacco, people still are widely believed to possess a basic moral right to consume what they want. Illicit drugs are seen differently—today. Recreational drug use once was accepted, just as recreational alcohol use remains not just common, but pervasive. Now the same substances are treated as unusually dangerous, irresistibly addictive, and inevitably harmful. The criminal justice system even treats drug use as a disease, thereby obscuring “the morality of choice” (Wisotsky, 1986: 200). Perceptions dominate policy. Argued Richard E. Vatz of Towson University and Lee S. Weinberg of the University of Pittsburgh, “the dominance of scenic rhetoric, combined with a set of public fantasies and perceptions that fail to differentiate the impact of drugs from the impact of their illegality, makes it unlikely that the policy of prohibiting drug use will change in the near future” (1998: 69-70). Unsurprisingly, the reality differs substantially from the rhetoric. As Douglas Husak of Rutgers wrote: “too much of our policy about illegal drug use is based on generalizations from worst-case scenarios that do not conform to the reality of typical drug use”