Vargas: Social cost of drug abuse is rarely part of the debate about legalization


Critics of the current drug laws speak to the failures of the “War on Drugs.” They cite overcrowded prisons and the overrepresentation of minorities in them, but mostly they argue the monetary costs of imprisonment.

It’s  rare for them to ever speak about the social costs of drug abuse. I’m talking about the social dysfunction and emotional price paid by families of drug abusers.

I’m talking about the price our children are paying every day because of drug abuse.

When I was 12, my father sat me down and told me my mother had left and wasn’t coming back. I wouldn’t find out until years later my mother had become a drug addict.

As a young boy, I felt my world had fallen apart. There were a lot of tears and emotional pain I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

In the years since, I’ve had contact with hundreds of families who have gone through similar experiences. In every case, the struggles they faced are heartbreaking.

I’ve spent time with parents whose children had overdosed and died. They did everything they could to help their kids. Parents would beg me to arrest their children in order to get them to stop using.

Drug addiction is a problem that can happen in the best of families.

I’ve sat down and comforted distraught children whose parents were struggling with addiction. I’ve even removed them from their homes when the neglect and abuse made it too dangerous for them to remain there.

The foster care system is overwhelmed with children from families ripped apart by drugs. Some of these kids have physical and behavioral problems they may never be able to overcome.

These are the costs that are never accounted for by those who measure success by the dollars saved.

The late-night tears and anguish of loved ones are never part of the math.

When we say drugs are illegal, we are sending a collective message to society that we will not stand for behavior that endangers our social well being. It is a line in the sand we as a people have said we will not cross.

For some people, it seems these days the line has become fuzzier and less clear.

Making drugs legal doesn’t suddenly eliminate or solve the collateral damage to children.

Advocates for drug legalization argue the point that just like with alcohol and marijuana, individuals should be able to determine their own well being.

I’d challenge anyone to ask a child whose parent is an drug addict if they think drugs should be legalized; or, for that matter, anyone who grew up in a home with a drug-addicted parent.

Drugs are illegal because they are bad for families.

They are bad for the mothers and fathers of addicts who agonize over the fate of their children.

They are bad for the children born with serious health issues stemming from drug abuse.

They are bad for the children who have to bear the emotional damage caused by their parents’ abuse.

That’s the real price of legalizing drugs.

It’s a price I don’t think anyone really wants to pay.

Joe is a retired Anaheim Police Department captain. You can reach him at