CHEBEAGUE ISLAND — A recent Portland Press Herald article on the drug popularly called “bath salts” (“Southern Maine braces for bath salts,” Oct. 9) discusses the negative impact this substance can have on users, and the fact that Maine has banned the sale and possession of this substance.

This is the usual pattern when it comes to substances that are both reinforcing and harmful: Make their sale and possession illegal.

While this approach may appear to be the only rational one, there are unintended consequences that should be considered.

When deciding on public policy, it only makes sense to consider all the consequences, both positive and negative, and thereby make an informed decision. And in the case of the war on drugs, that is not happening.

The logic of this fight involves protecting people from themselves. Taking drugs, whether legal or illegal, involves making a decision for oneself. There appear to be genes that predispose certain people toward being rewarded for specific drugs.

For example, a mutation of a certain gene makes nicotine more reinforcing for those with that mutation. Similarly, certain genes make the subjective effects of marijuana more reinforcing.

Since no one can choose his or her genes, the war on drugs may be viewed as a way to help protect people with these susceptibilities from themselves.

However, protecting people from themselves can incur costs. Were those costs to exceed the benefits of that protection, the basis for the war on drugs would be brought into question. There is evidence today that the costs of the war on drugs could become prohibitive.

Mexican drug cartels are responsible for most of the cocaine, heroin and marijuana that comes to the United States, and are beginning to control methamphetamine.

Since President Felipe Calderon of Mexico took office in 2006, more than 40,000 people have died in Mexico as a result of drug-related violence. Calderon wants to make the war on drugs a permanent fixture of the Mexican government, in spite of the fact it does not seem to be working. He claims Mexico will be safer, “and to have not acted, it would have deteriorated much more.”

Michael Morrissey, the Norfolk, Mass., district attorney, wrote in a letter to the editor: “The opiate epidemic rages on. We should be alarmed that the problem is now so severe that the public health focus has shifted from drug prevention to death prevention.”

The only reasonable conclusion is that the war on drugs is not working and, in spite of Calderon’s promises, is unlikely to work in the future.

But the large amounts of money flowing south of the border for drugs have other effects. In Colombia, drug cartels build “semi-submarines” that travel just beneath the surface of the ocean.

According to U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Joseph Nimmich, director of the Joint Interagency Task Force South, “These vessels are intelligently designed. They are not very comfortable, but they are now very seaworthy. They are capable of carrying multi-ton cargos. They can travel thousands of miles without refuel or resupply. And they are very hard to detect.”

He has also pointed out: “If you can carry 10 tons of cocaine, you can carry 10 tons of anything.”

With that last statement in mind, consider the ongoing attempts by Iran to create nuclear weapons. There is evidence that Iran is enriching uranium to 20 percent purity, which is close to what is needed for fuel for an atomic weapon.

Recently, Iran apparently attempted to engage with Los Zetas, a Mexican drug cartel, to kill the ambassador from Saudi Arabia to the United States and to carry out other attacks.

Iran may have plans to deploy warships near our coast. But if the same result could be achieved by using semi-submarines to carry atomic weapons, it is only logical to assume Iran is thinking along those lines.

The war on drugs, then, results in the flow of large amounts of money to Mexico and Colombia, which allows drug cartels to develop sophisticated means of delivering drugs to this country. Those same means could be used to deliver atomic weapons to our coastal cities.

Joseph Ruddy, an assistant U.S. attorney in Tampa who prosecutes narco-mariners, has pointed out: “You don’t want to see one of these trekking up the Hudson River.”

The only way to attack this problem is to legalize all drugs, thereby stemming that flow of money to drug cartels. Failure to do so may well result in the deaths of millions and the destruction of some of our major cities.

There would obviously be costs involved in legalizing drugs, but there is a much larger potential cost for not doing so.

– Special to The Press Herald