Watch Out - People Are Enjoying Themselves

In Israel, legislation relating to drugs is patronizing legislation: The law is saving the public from itself. The legislator is deciding for the public, for its own good.

Everything happened too fast. A few months ago, we were told about a new and fashionable drug, "hagigat," being sold at kiosks. Its main ingredient is cathinone, the active ingredient in qat leaves. We learned of its advantages: It creates a pleasant feeling of alert lucidity, joy. The white powder is easily inhaled (or sipped, mixed with water). The effect is immediate. The taste is somewhat bitter. The high dissipates quite quickly, and sometimes a feeling of heaviness remains, but usually one gets up the next day without a headache. A nice, simple drug. Produced in a laboratory like cocaine, but cheap (about NIS 50 a dose) and more accessible than marijuana.

A short time after the news was made public, the drug was outlawed and its use and distribution were prohibited. The process is almost automatic: The press reports on users who are harmed, the Health Ministry examines the substance in the labs of the Institute of Forensic Medicine, discovers that it has a psychoactive effect, and orders it removed from the shelves. The police raid the kiosks, and arrest sellers and buyers.

From that moment on, the use of the drug becomes a criminal offense. It can be purchased only on the quiet: A friend has managed to obtain a few capsules in a kiosk in Tel Aviv, a moment before it closed. You enter the bathroom. You check that nobody sees. You do a few lines. And behold, a strange phenomenon: The familiar bitter taste suddenly contains a new taste - that of prohibition.

The speed with which the legal prohibition on the use of drugs is imposed creates a mistaken impression: that the prohibition is an expression of pure logic and justice. As though criminal behavior is an essential characteristic of these drugs. The basic assumption of the relevant institutions - including the Israel Anti-Drug Authority, the Health Ministry and the police - is that it is sufficient that there is proof the drug presents a danger to health in order to incriminate those who use it. In Israel, legislation relating to drugs is therefore patronizing legislation: The law is saving the public from itself. The legislator is deciding for the public, for its own good.

But as opposed to other patronizing legislation, which was accepted without question - the prohibition on riding a motorcycle without a helmet - many citizens do not honor the law prohibiting the use of drugs. The percentage of those using illegal drugs among adults up to the age of 40 (who used a drug at least once a year) rose from 6.6 percent in 1989 to 10.5 percent in 2001. Among young people, a similar increase was found (according to the most recent comprehensive survey by the Anti-Drug Authority). This is as compared to a decline in the percentage of users of alcohol, the most common legal drug: from 70 percent to 65 percent in the adult population, and from 57 percent to 47 percent among youth, during the same years.

Patronizing legislation fails when it is not fairly explained. If the danger to health is an excuse for outlawing the drug hagigat, and for the prohibition on the consumption of marijuana, why is it permissible to use alcohol undisturbed? Nobody denies the damage caused by alcohol. The World Health Organization counted the consumption of alcohol among the three main causes of death today, alongside tobacco (a legal product) and becoming overweight (a legal activity). In the United States, 39 percent of the deaths in traffic accidents are alcohol related. The connection between alcohol and violence is well known. There has never been a report of a similar connection between drugs such as marijuana and hagigat and violence. The damage to society - the cost of treating those damaged by drugs - is no greater than the damage caused to society by alcohol and smoking.

What the legal drugs - alcohol, sedatives, tobacco and coffee - have in common is the fact that they are manufactured by giant corporations. The only legal drugs are those that cannot be produced at home or in small factories. The patronizing legislation conceals from the public the economic interests that lie behind the prohibition of some drugs and the approval of others.

A fair discussion of the question also requires skepticism regarding the justification of the use of criminal law. There are human activities that cannot be abolished through legislation. The use of drugs is one of the oldest human pastimes. At its best, when it is done in moderation, it is pleasurable. With exaggerated use, it causes suffering and is damaging.

Just as sexual relations are not outlawed because of the danger of being infected by sexual diseases, and the consumption of fattening foods is not prohibited, and smoking in private is not illegal, in the same way there is no justification for incriminating people who use hagigat, only because of the danger inherent in the drug. A society that wishes to restrict such activities among its adults, who are responsible for their actions, can use other social mechanisms: education, assistance, strict safety rules. As enlightened countries - including Denmark, Holland, Great Britain and Switzerland - have already understood, there is no justification for turning drug users into criminals. Patronizing legislation that is not properly explained is not convincing. It should be reconsidered.