Several countries throughout the world are working to decriminalize or legalize less harmful drugs such as marijuana, currently classified as a Class C drug, as a means of addressing the growing problem of the war on drugs. Rather than providing the United States and other countries with the elimination of undesirable drugs as was anticipated, the war on drugs has instead served to heighten violence, contribute to the development of organized crime, fill the prison system past capacity, consume large amounts of capital and has still had very little effect on the availability of these drugs or the numbers of individuals who use them. It has been suggested, and in some cases demonstrated, that legalizing or at least decriminalizing less harmful drugs, such as marijuana, can help to reduce the violence, significantly decrease the numbers of people incarcerated for drug use, allow more individuals to remain a contributing member of society and free up funds and manpower to combat against more harmful substances. That the war on drugs is ineffective has been documented in various ways and by various officials. An examination into the available literature illustrates that the war on drugs has not managed to eliminate the sales of these substances within defined boundaries, has contributed to the development of organized crime and other associated crimes and carries an unsupportable price tag in terms of prison space and law enforcement capabilities.
A report put out by the Drug Reform Coordination Network in 2005 indicated that a group of at least 500 economists are pushing for legislation reform as a means of saving billions of dollars through a tax and regulation policy as opposed to the current elimination policy.5 In this report, a study conducted by Dr. Jeffrey Miron is cited as claiming legalized marijuana would provide significant savings in enforcement costs at both the federal and state levels and would generate significant income in the form of taxes. Together, it is suggested there would be a net savings of approximately $14 billion a year. Rather than proposing a specific course of action, these economists were instead calling for a national debate to be held to discuss legalization. “The fact that marijuana prohibition has these budgetary impacts does not by itself mean prohibition is a bad policy. Existing evidence, however, suggests prohibition has minimal benefits and may itself cause substantial harm.” (Friedman, 2005)
It was believed by the economists that such a discussion would bring out the obvious factors that will lead to the legalization, regulation and taxation on marijuana, bringing out the benefits of each side and, at the least, justifies the reasons for maintaining the prohibition against the substance. This group of economists was also joined by Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman who argued that there is no logical basis for the prohibition against marijuana. (Friedman, 2005) The vast majority (85%) of America’s teenagers report that marijuana is easy to get every year, indicating that the sales have not been reduced by the laws and enforcement endeavors, leading many government officials to begin wondering whether we are simply throwing away billions of tax dollars to no effect.
It has been suggested that by legalizing drugs, property and many violent crimes would vastly decline. The resulting tax revenues from such measures would supply law enforcement with more resources resulting in a further reduction of crime and could also be used to fund drug prevention programs in the same way that alcohol and tobacco taxes presently do. (Transform, 2005) The overall economic impact of drug legalization must be calculated using several factors, all of which determine its level of benefit to society. A study of illicit drugs necessitates some consideration regarding the characteristics of addiction, especially dangerous addiction. According to economic theory, a product is normally defined as addictive “if an increase in the stock of past consumption results in an increase in current consumption.” (Becker et al, 1994) If current consumption increases, the economic benefits of legalization must be proportionately altered, but overall benefits to society remain regardless. The legalization of drugs enables society to raise tax revenue. Decriminalizing negates the offsetting tax benefits and serves only to legitimize drug usage which encourages greater consumption leading to adverse affects to the economy while illegal supplies remain at issue. The legalization of drugs has been proven economically and socially beneficial in overall, general terms. (Thornton, 2002)
America’s war against recreational drugs is an example of good intentions gone terribly wrong. While this country squanders over $50 billion dollars annually on the efforts to stop illegal drugs, trafficking and use continue. It has been said that trying to stop drugs is like trying to stop the rain. Over half of the prisoners in jail are there for drug ‘crimes.’ This causes overcrowding which results in the early release of dangerous, violent criminals. This creates more of a public safety problem than does drug use. It is illogical from a societal view and inhumane to individuals who are marked as a criminal for life for activity that causes no harm to others. Those who are addicted receive little or no therapeutic help in prison. Instead of imprisoning people that need help, rehabilitation programs are a much more effective method to treat the problem but a rehabilitation system will not succeed if drugs continue to be illegal. Drug abusers will hardly seek help from the same government that tosses them in jail for the same thing. The hypocrisy of the drug war is apparent to even very young children. All illegal drugs combined account for about 4,500 deaths in this country per year while tobacco is responsible for murdering 400,000 people annually and alcohol ends 80,000 people’s lives every year. Legislators will not ban smoking because they indicate regulation regarding what adults do in privacy including what they can put into their bodies is clearly unconstitutional and an infringement on personal liberties. Our code of law is founded upon a principle of presumptive rationality. Rational adults should be allowed to make personal choices as long as those actions cause no harm to others. The U.S. government is unequivocally unjustified in choosing this particular personal freedom to ignore at such colossal cost to society. (Fu, 2006)
Although arguments can also be made for other substances that are currently legal, voters have argued that it is not necessary to bring in more potentially harmful substances into legal circulation at this time. To support the argument in favor of legalization, authors pull from the theories of John Stuart Mill, who espoused that adult citizens should have the right to make their own choices regarding whether or not to participate in harmful activity as long as it does no harm to others, a theory that has been largely ignored in the decisions regarding marijuana.
Alternatives to Legislation
Decriminalization implies different meanings to different people. To some it means simply legalization which takes the profit, thus the crime out of the drug trade. One interpretation involves three steps. The first is to make drugs such as marijuana legal under restricted circumstances, but not as controlled as it is now. Secondly, sound reasoning should prevail in substance abuse policies. The government should form a policy that is harsher in regards to alcohol and tobacco but not by enacting criminal laws. The third aspect is to manage our tax money more wisely and discontinue wasting billions of dollars on criminal law enforcement techniques. Instead, these funds should be diverted into treatment and abuse prevention. When speaking of the decriminalization of drugs, prohibition policies should be examined to determine their costs in relation to benefits, then compared with other options. Many citizens believe that the best combination of costs and benefit may look much the same as legalization. Varying degrees of decriminalization is often confused with total legalization. Alcohol is legal, for example, but it is not legal to operate a car under its influence or to sell it to those less than 21 years of age. Conversely, people speak of cocaine and the opiates as illegal, but doctors prescribe these drugs everyday. (Nadelmann, 1990)
Harm Reduction Strategy
Harm reduction, on the other hand, is a public health rather than a legislative philosophy that concentrates on lessening the dangers that drug abuse and drug policies create within society. It is not a drug legalization tool, as many have been led to believe. One of the founding principles of this policy is the knowledge that there will never be a drug free society regardless of the legal and enforcement methods put in place. Instead, harm reduction focuses on finding solutions that work in the current situation by using a variety of interventions developed through science, compassion, health and human rights. “A harm reduction strategy demands new outcome measurements. Whereas the success of current drug policies is primarily measured by the change in use rates, the success of a harm reduction strategy is measured by the change in rates of death, disease, crime and suffering.” (England, 2006)
Recognizing that imprisonment does little to reduce the harmful effects of drugs within society, harm reduction policies favor drug treatment programs run by licensed professionals over the current method of immediate incarceration, encouraging attention to be focused on the benefits that can be gained from certain drugs, such as marijuana, as well as recognizing the relative harmfulness of a particular drug to society rather than blanket banishment and standardized treatment. Finally, harm reduction strategies work to provide education and information services to both reduce the over-emphasis currently displayed in the enforcement and incarceration of drug users and the effects this has on the black market as well as the harm caused by society regarding the polarizing nature of the issue to more effectively encourage more people to decide for themselves to stay off of drugs and to provide more effective and acceptable treatment for addiction. (England, 2006) Most countries now have some sort of harm reduction policies in place or are working to develop new interventions, including the educational programs included in school curriculums and new treatment centers and research groups working with those involved in drug use or trade. The striking aspect of harm reduction policies is that they work within the current legal systems to bring about necessary change to begin addressing some of the harmful effects legislation has introduced into the American economy without the threat of widespread carte blanche on drug use that many see as the outcome of any legalization effort.
Although the issue of what to do about dangerous, possibly addicting drugs such as heroin and cocaine have long been issues within many countries, the approaches taken to stem the tide have had widely varying results. Particularly, the prohibition approach taken by countries such as the United States have led to an astronomical increase in the rates of crime and numbers of incarcerated individuals as a result while having little to no impact upon the actual availability and usage rates within the country’s borders. The statistics regarding the numbers of individuals currently using drugs at least as a recreational activity remain stable even as drug busts and numbers of people incarcerated for drug possession continue to rise, indicating greater quantities of drugs being smuggled into the country and greater degrees of organization within the crime syndicates that accomplish this. Rather than dissolving the demand for these substances, the attempted block on supplies not only fails to adequately block trafficking, but it leads to greater degrees of violence and corruption by ensuring this industry remains in the hands of criminals.
Other countries, such as the Netherlands and England, have demonstrated that a reduction in the prohibition can lead to very positive results in terms of both health and safety of its citizens. By bringing lower-level drugs such as marijuana and other Class C drugs within the context of the law, prices are stabilized and reduced, distribution points are available yet closely monitored, client base remains restricted to a higher degree and law enforcement is freed to pursue more harmful and dangerous crime. In addition, by shifting the focus off of the lower-level drugs, the citizenry ceases to view the use of such substances as a form of resistance and use levels have been seen to drop over the long term.
Concerns over legalization center around the questions of who, what, where and how these drugs would be distributed, which are questions that have been satisfactorily answered in other countries as well. The Netherlands allows for cafes and coffee houses with special licensing permits to distribute marijuana and doctors have the ability to work with patients who are addicted to other, more harmful drugs. Company employees are not fired for having inhaled at lunch, but are able to readily find counselors if they find they have become psychologically addicted to marijuana’s effects. Prohibition laws in the United States prevent this type of activity, ensuring that people who use drugs have no hope of living a productive life once discovered regardless of past and current drug activity or lack of any other type of criminal activity.
However, the choice is not simply a black and white issue of whether or not to legalize. While drug laws are relaxed regarding the Class C narcotics in England and the Netherlands, they still remain against the law. The decision whether or not to arrest a person found to be in possession of marijuana in England remains in the hands of the policeman in charge and can depend upon a variety of factors, such as whether the person was smoking alone within their own private dwelling or outside at the park in front of children. Policies that work to decriminalize drugs, reducing the severity of punishments, or to reduce harm, shifting the focus back to treatment and education, can also be used to help reduce the negative effects of the war on drugs.
Becker, G.S., Grossman, M ., and Murphy, K.M . “An Empirical Analysis of Cigarette Addiction.” American Economic Review. Vol. 84, N. 3, pp. 396-418. (1994).
DRCNet Foundation (Drug Reform Coordination Network). “Marijuana: Milton Friedman and 500 Economists Call for Debate on Prohibition as New Study Suggests Regulation Could Save Billions.” Drug War Chronicle. Washington D.C.: Stop the Drug War. (June 3, 2005).
Drug Policy Alliance. “England.” Drug Policy Around the World. (2006). December 6, 2008
Fu, Edward. “Should Drugs be Legalized?” Drug Policy News. Drug Policy Alliance. (March 8, 2006). December 6, 2008
Nadelmann, Ethan. “Should Some Illegal Drugs be Legalized?” Science and Technology. Vol. 6, pp. 43-46. (1990).
Thornton, Mark. “Prohibition vs. Legalization: Do Economists Reach a Conclusion on Drug Policy?” Paper presented to Southern Economic Association Convention. New Orleans, LA. (November 2002).
Transform. “About Us: What Does Transform Hope to Achieve.” Bristol: Transform Drug Policy Foundation. (2005).