The issue of illegal and abused drugs in the United States is a complex one. The concept of “drug abuse” encompasses the misuse of legal drugs, such as pharmaceutical painkillers, as well as illegal drugs, like heroin and cocaine. Harsh criminal punishments and beefed up efforts to stop the flow of drugs into the United States (the so-called “war on drugs”) have done little to ease the problem. Drugs cost American society billions of dollars a year, for law enforcement, for the criminal justice system, for medical care, in lost workdays, in lost opportunities.
The major illegal drugs in the United States each have different subcultures of users, world production areas, and distribution channels. The three most controversial illegal drugs are heroin, cocaine (along with the cocaine derivative “crack”), and methamphetamine (“meth”). Heroin begins as opium, usually grown in Asia, while cocaine is a South American product. Meth is produced clandestinely from legal pharmaceutical raw materials in so-called “meth labs”. If you need certain cold remedies, you now need to show identification at a pharmacy and sign certain documents, since illegal meth labs can use these ingredients to produce the drug. The euphoria-inducing drug ecstacy has its own subculture, particularly among young people, as do mind-altering drugs like LSD. Abuse of otherwise legally-obtained substances like household cleaning chemicals is an ongoing problem, especially among the young.
Illegal drugs and violence go hand in hand in America. Sophisticated criminal networks manufacture, refine, or smuggle drugs into the country and oversee their distribution. The culture of these drugs leads to violence among and between these criminal elements. Drug users and addicts may also turn to crime, ranging from common street crime to identify-theft and fraud, to fund their drug habits. Drugs, of course, can also sicken and kill their users. Many illegal drugs create subcultures among their users that tend to stigmatize them and marginalize them in society, leaving them vulnerable to diseases like AIDS, and giving them poor access to healthcare, including drug dependency treatment.
Marijuana is a world apart. Many jurisdictions have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, a drug that more than half the American population has sampled at one time or another (including one of America’s presidents). California and a number of other states now allow the organized production and sale of “medical marijuana,” even though the legality is not yet recognized under federal law. Much marijuana still comes into the country from its traditional source, Mexico, but new techniques allow successful indoor production of the drug, both legally and illegally.
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