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The Drug Risk Perception Gap

When President Obama's deputy drug czar Michael Botticelli recently acknowledged that marijuana isn't as dangerous as alcohol, he was conceding to a point that has long been made by the drug law reform movement. 

 Why are some drugs legal and others illegal?

In the video below, Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, says that some people might assume this must be because "there was a thoughtful consideration of the relative risks of drugs." And yet, this thoughtful consideration never happened. "It’s not as if there was ever any kind of National Academy of Science that a hundred years ago decided that these ones had to be illegal and those ones legal," Nadelmann says. After all, we know that cigarettes are more addictive than many illegal drugs. Alcohol is more associated with violence "than almost any illegal drug," Nadelmann adds.  

So what accounts for the legal distinctions that are in place today? According to Nadelmann, "it has almost nothing to do with the relative risks of these drugs and almost everything to do with who used and who was perceived to use these drugs."

No one thought to criminalize opiates before the 20th century because "nobody wanted to put auntie or grandma behind bars," Nadelmann says, pointing out that opiate users in the 19th century tended to be middle aged white women who didn't have access to penicillin. But when opiates became associated with Chinese immigrants, Nadelmann says, we began to see the first opium prohibition laws in states such as Nevada and California in the 1870s and '80s. 

Indeed, all prohibition laws, Nadelmann argues, are "disproportionately enforced against the poor and younger and darker skinned members of society."

What's the Big Idea?

Individuals make bad decisions based on a faulty assessment of risks all the time. When a society has a risk perception gap - whether it involves drugs or vaccines or climate change or nuclear energy or GM foods - the consequences are all the more profound, and potentially damaging. That is why, in the video below, Nadelmann describes the War on Drugs as a prime example of the risk perception gap becoming a risk in and of itself. Policy has been driven by irrational fears, Nadelmann argues, not by an objective assessment of the real dangers inherent with certain drugs. 

Watch the video here:

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