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Guns and Drugs: Different Scourges, Same Solution?

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Sandy Hook Memorial Photo via

By Maia Szalavitz

01/02/13

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By dramatic contrast, gun prohibition has not been tried here—and as the current public debate shows, it would be met with fierce resistance among millions of gun-loving, Second Amendment-absolutist citizens; the implementation of such interventions as assault-weapon buybacks, which have proved effective in other countries, also poses a much greater challenge in a country where there is already nearly one gun for every one of our 300 million people.

But policy success has been seen in countries that strictly regulate the types of guns and ammunition that are allowed—and the same is true where drug use is managed through measures like alcohol taxes and restrictions on sales outlets, decriminalization of drug possession and focusing law enforcement on the most violent dealers of dangerous drugs, not on nonviolent and marijuana suppliers.

The many similarities between the potentially dangerous supply and demand of drugs and guns suggest that the middle way of regulation is where the solution will be found: the extremes of lax regulation with unlimited marketing or total prohibition simply do not allow for effective control. A world of Marlboro crack advertised 24/7 and gun-vending machines on every corner is not one most people would want to live in; likewise, most would oppose a national policy where every move was scrutinized and blood and body fluids constantly tested to ensure compliance with the law.

But the differences are also telling. Unlike guns, drugs are not deliberately made for injury or killing; they can and often do simply offer harmless pleasure, escape and sometimes even enlightenment. Arguably, a day at a shooting range could offer similarly safe entertainment, but it still contains a link to violence that is simply not essential to the drug experience.

Another difference is the violence created by the drug trade under prohibition itself—a category of crime absent from legal trade. There have been no alcohol dealing–related shootouts so common during Prohibition because legitimate businesses can take their disputes to the safe and lucrative venue of the legal system.

The similarities between the dangerous supply and demand of drugs and guns suggest that the middle way of regulation is the solution.

Similarly, violence related to the drug trade—like the 50,000 people killed in Mexico’s drug crackdown since 2006—would evaporate if drugs were regulated rather than prohibited. In the US, between 5% and 25% of murders are linked to the drug trade, according to a recent CDC study.

Good data would make determining the best type of regulation easier: for example, modeling the proportions and patterns of people who are “evitable” or “inevitable” drug or gun casualties would help identify those likely to cause the greatest amount of harm. Oddly, little such critical research is conducted on drugs, according to Dr. Phil Coffin, the head of substance use research for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, who recently did a modeling study of naloxone to prevent overdose death.

Of course, even if we had conclusive data it still might not be able to budge the seemingly intransigent debates over both of these issues. But opening this parallel gun/drugs discussion might help us make progress out of the current demoralizing stalemate. By looking to the best cases made by proponents of regulation, legalization and control on both sides of the political spectrum, everyone gains. And who knows—we might just get closer to preventing small tragedies like one person’s addiction as well as large ones like Sandy Hook.

Maia Szalavitz is a columnist at The Fix. She is also a health reporter at Time magazine online, and co-author, with Bruce Perry, of Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential—and Endangered (Morrow, 2010), and author of Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids (Riverhead, 2006). 

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