Should Drugs Be Legalized?

Policymakers in the United States have chosen to define drug abuse as a legal problem rather than a public‐health problem. This choice puts the criminal justice system at the center of a massive war on drugs. The drug war is an expanding enterprise with deep roots in the political and social fabric of the U.S. society. It is an effort that involves law enforcement, courts, corrections, education, health care, and a multitude of political groups. Started by the Reagan administration and expanded by the Bush and Clinton administrations, the drug war depicts the U.S. as fighting a deadly enemy. The term drug war refers to a situation created when the government puts its power behind the drug laws, zealously enforces them, and imprisons large numbers of drug offenders as if they were enemies in a real war.

The main solutions to the drug problem focus on supply and demand. Supply‐side solutions include initiatives aimed at pressuring drug‐producing countries to halt the exporting of illegal drugs, intercepting drugs before smugglers can get them across American borders, passing tougher drug laws, cracking down on drug dealers, and sentencing drug manufacturers and dealers to long prison terms. Demand‐side solutions include drug education and drug treatment. A more radical approach suggests legalization (in other words, removal of drug offense from criminal codes) as the only viable solution.

Drugs should be legalized

There are numerous arguments for drug legalization.

  1. Criminal prohibition of drugs has not eliminated or substantially reduced drug use.

  2. The drug war has cost society more than drug abuse itself. Costs include the $16 billion the federal government alone spent to fight drugs in 1998. Of this $16 billion, $10.5 billion pays for measures to reduce the supply of drugs. Most of these measures involve law enforcement efforts to interdict or intercept drug supplies at the borders. Costs also include corruption, damage to poor and minority neighborhoods, a world‐wide black market in illegal drugs, the enrichment of criminal organizations through their involvement in the drug trade, and an increase in predatory crimes, such as robberies and burglaries, committed by drug addicts who are enslaved to drugs.

  3. Most illegal drugs are no more harmful than legal substances, such as cigarettes and alcohol, and therefore, drugs should be treated the same as these other substances.

  4. Legalization would free up billions of dollars that the government now spends on police, courts, and corrections to wage war on drugs and would produce significant tax revenues. The money saved could then be spent on drug education, drug treatment, and law enforcement initiatives directed at more serious crimes.

  5. Drug prohibition infringes on civil liberties. The U.S. Supreme Court has decided that because drugs are such a horrible thing, it is okay to bend the Fourth Amendment (which relates to searches and seizures) in order to make it easier to secure convictions in drug cases.

Drugs should not be legalized

There are also many arguments against legalization.

  1. Legalization would increase the number of casual users which, in turn, would increase the number of drug abusers.

  2. More drug users, abusers, and addicts would mean more health problems and lower economic productivity.

  3. Although legalization might result in savings in expensive criminal justice costs and provide tax revenues, increased public‐health costs and reduced economic productivity due to more drug‐dependent workers would offset the financial benefits of legalization.

  4. The argument based on the analogy between alcohol and tobacco versus psychoactive drugs is weak because its conclusion—psychoactive drugs should be legalized—does not follow from its premises. It is illogical to say that because alcohol and tobacco take a terrible toll (for example, they are responsible for 500,000 premature deaths each year), a heavy toll from legalization is therefore acceptable. Indeed, the reverse seems more logical: prohibit the use of alcohol, tobacco, and psychoactive drugs because of the harm they all do. Additionally, marijuana, heroin, cocaine, crack, and the rest of the psychoactive drugs are not harmless substances—they have serious negative consequences for the health of users and addictive liability.

Evaluating drug legalization

Is legalization a gamble worth taking? Arguments on both sides are persuasive. What should we do if we can neither clearly accept nor reject drug legalization? One approach proposed as being sensible is to suspend judgment, to recognize that proponents of legalization are partly right (that the drug war has proven ineffective in reducing drug abuse and crime associated with drugs), and to realize that it is time to explore new approaches.