Drug Legalization Might Be the Answer
American drug control policy—the drug war— has been mired in failure for decades.
By any measure of policy evaluation, the drug war is a failure. First, it fails to meet its stated goals of reducing drug use and availability of drugs, sufficiently disrupting supplies so that prices increase and purity declines, and providing treatment to drug abusers.
In fact, drug use is not demonstrably lower under prohibition and is actually generally higher since the founding of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP)—the primary federal agency of accountability in the drug war; this includes marijuana. Drugs are no less available and are in fact widely available (especially marijuana). Prices of drugs are not up and are in fact generally down (including marijuana). Purity of drugs is not down and in fact is generally up (including marijuana).
And the vast majority of people who need drug treatment do not get it. This is largely because spending on treatment has lagged far behind dollars spent on law enforcement, interdiction, and international spending.
Second, the costs of our nation’s drug control policy outweigh its meager benefits. There are of course the obvious financial costs; the official drug control budget is $15.5 billion, but this excludes tens of billions of dollars spent every year on efforts by police, courts, and correctional facilities supporting federal drug policy.
Consider these data. About 15% of all arrests and more than 30% of convictions in state courts are for drug offenses; more than 30% of sentences imposed by federal courts are for drug offenses; and drug offenders now make up 20% of all state prison inmates and an astounding 55% of federal prison inmates.
With no drug war, every bit of these resources allocated to criminal justice could be directed at more serious threats to our nation, things like violent crime and terrorism. This is simply a matter of priorities, so states might choose to improve education instead.
Other costs imposed by drug policy include what ONDCP calls “crimes associated with drug using lifestyle.” This is when drug using citizens come into contact with criminals operating in the black market, a fact of life under prohibition.
The drug war also empowers violent and even terrorist organizations; these groups are responsible for tens of thousands of deaths in Mexico just in the past few years.
Then there is racial bias, a shameful legacy of US drug control policy. Prisons are literally being built “on the backs of blacks.”
Finally, illness and deaths associated with drugs have consistently risen for the past three decades. Prohibition simply makes drug use less safe.
An alternative is legalization, whereby the criminal penalty for drug offenses is eliminated and drugs are legally available for adults. Under this approach, drugs can be regulated, assuring safer use.
There is no better drug to start with than marijuana, a relatively safe drug anyway.
Marijuana kills less than five people a year in the US according to the federal government, compared with about 80,000 for alcohol and 440,000 for tobacco. Further, the vast majority of people who use marijuana never have any serious health problems or move on to any other harder substance.
No one really knows what would happen under legalization. It would be an experiment. Yet, careful studies of the US and abroad make predictions reasonably certain.
Marijuana might become more available and used more, but strict regulation could greatly diminish this. And educational campaigns could discourage use by young people similar to tobacco.
And even if use went up, people would still be safer using marijuana than alcohol or tobacco.
We would simultaneously save billions of dollars and could even raise money though tax revenue, funds that are sorely needed, especially now.