Americans are increasingly turning to the recreational use of pharmaceutical and over-the-counter drugs, according to the just-released National Survey on Drug Use and Health. 5.2 million Americans used prescription painkillers for nonmedical reasons in 2006, up more than 10% from 4.7 million the year before. The same general trend was documented last December in the annual Monitoring the Future study, with high-school age kids reporting using drugs like Vicodin and OxyContin in significant numbers.

Is this a cause for panic?

Not necessarily. It may actually be a good thing.

Because if people — even young people whom we care about deeply — are going to use recreational drugs, it’s a hell of a lot better for them to be using pharmaceuticals or over-the-counter drugs than to buy heroin or cocaine on the street. These 5.2 million people are far less likely to end up in prison than somebody who buys street drugs. They’re far less likely to get killed or robbed when they’re buying the drugs at a pharmacy or taking them out of a medicine cabinet than they would be buying drugs on the street. They’re far less likely to buy a product that is adulterated with all kinds of garbage, as street drugs often are. And they’re less likely to accidentally overdose, because the strength of the drug is clearly indicated on the label. The whole process of using these kinds of drugs is less risky, less unpredictable and creates fewer collateral problems for society than the use of drugs that are ostensibly “prohibited” by our laws.

Aren’t some of these 5.2 million people going to get addicted? Aren’t some of these people going to wreck their lives by using drugs?


Some of them will.

Just as people always have and always will.

Just as people already do with drugs like alcohol and tobacco.

Just as people still would even if we criminalized every drug that could possibly provide pleasure to anyone.

That’s simply the reality of human psychology, a reality that we were unable to crush with alcohol prohibition in the 1920s, and one that will never be eliminated no matter how much money and how many guns we throw at it.

But the good news is that by turning away from the standard drugs that are the bread and butter of law enforcement, 5.2 million people are reducing their exposure to the ridiculous excesses of our criminal justice system. As a result, they’re less likely to face paramilitary SWAT teams, less likely to have their homes and vehicles torn apart in warrantless searches, less likely to be killed in the gratuitous crossfire of our relentless “war” against ourselves.

Sure, these 5.2 million people still face the risks involved with using drugs.

But they’ve reduced the risks they face at the hands of thepolice.

And in America, the nation that locks up more of its own citizens than any other nation in the world, that’s a big deal.

It might seem perverse to suggest that it’s a “good” thing to use Vicodin rather than heroin, dextromethorphan rather than PCP. But as long as we have a criminal justice scheme premised on the bizarre notion that some drugs are mortal sin and others are simply useful chemicals, the incentives are clear.

There’s no question which drugs a reasonable person should use, if they are going to use drugs at all.